The Future Of Biological Weapons In The Age Of COVID-19

It came as no surprise when the publishing company Merriam-Webster announced its infamous “word of the year” in late 2020. Pandemic. In a world rife with challenges that threaten global peace, security, and harmony, the COVID-19 pandemic has surged to the top almost unanimously. It illuminates yet further issues that the world must wrestle with, even as technological and scientific advances make humankind appear more impervious.

Yet, as long-heralded vaccines begin to roll out across Europe and North America, persistent questions from the very beginning of the pandemic continue on the backburner as the world’s governing bodies seek to prevent another outbreak on such a devastating scale. Cast your mind back to February 2020, when accusations that COVID-19 was potentially the fruit of a Chinese bioweapons program, developed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, spread almost as fast as the virus itself. While likely unfounded, the pandemic has raised critical questions about the way in which the world deals with new diseases and has cast new light on the apocalyptic outcomes of those who might ever seek to weaponize their potential. Exacerbated by climate change and other worldwide instabilities, infectious diseases and their use by humans must now be a freshly examined focus for global peace brokers and security dealers.


Warning Signs

With a death toll of 1.79 million, and cases worldwide rising to 82 million as of late December, COVID-19 has flagrantly exposed the world’s risk to infectious diseases, and with it the potential for non-conventional weapons of mass destruction, especially biological and chemical weapons. Experts—when they were finally able to access the Wuhan laboratory in late August last year—confirmed that COVID-19 possessed “probably not enough [desirable properties] to make it a good choice for military purposes” according to Forbes. Unlike other possible “Category A” diseases, such as smallpox and anthrax, it is difficult to manufacture, unstable in the environment, and does not have an equivalent death toll per infection rate. That makes the new pandemic less likely to have originated from human science, but it does not diminish the lessons that the pandemic has taught us.

Although the U.S. bioweapons program was mostly abandoned in 1969, the use of biological and chemical weapons has not been nonexistent. Whereas biological weapons have mostly been utilized by non-state actors thus far, including during the ‘Amerithrax’ attacks on prominent U.S. figures following 9/11 and notable use by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, chemical weapons- which can have similarly devastating impacts- have been deployed by state-sponsored organs. In 2013, the Syrian town of Ghouta was attacked by rockets containing the nerve agent sarin, likely launched by government forces. Russia has been a key player in these developments as well, and its own abandonment of controversial biological and chemical weapons programs before the collapse of the USSR has been widely scrutinized for decades. High profile state targets, like former-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who defected to the U.K. in 2000, and Sergei Skripal, former Russian spy and U.K. double agent, have been subject to international assassination attempts using these types of weapons. Earlier in 2020, the toxin used in the attempt to kill Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Novichok, was also used in an attempt to poison prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Both types of weapons have been used in recent history, and their potential is still not fully explored.

Where in all of this lies the link with COVID-19? The pandemic has merely been a timely reminder of the risks that these types of weapons pose to global peace, as well as the relative weaknesses of the institutions and agreements that prevent their use. As the pandemic raged on in October, Russia introduced a highly controversial resolution to the UN General Assembly that sought to bring the powers of investigation into possible state biological and chemical weapon possession into the hands of the UN Security Council—where it holds veto power. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the resolution “would have politicized what had been carefully designed to be an independent and technical investigation process” and “weaken[ed] international capabilities to undertake impartial and objective investigations into allegations of chemical and biological weapons.” The underlying problem in all of this is the continued weakness of cooperative international solutions to pandemic management, and mechanisms to prevent and limit the spread of future pathogens, whether from natural or human sources. The attempted move by Russia—defeated in a vote—signals the possible dangers of failure.


A Framework for Change

The response to potential state-sponsored biological weapons programs has been under the jurisdiction of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and remains enshrined in the Geneva Convention. However, the BWC has no dedicated international organization to implement it and no verification instruments, and COVID-19 has shown the importance of proper investigation mechanisms to suppress the viability of disease as a weapon. Put more broadly, the international community has failed to come together to agree unanimously on both how to prevent states from obtaining and using biological weapons in particular, as well as how to deal with the consequences of disease, whatever its origin. President Trump’s comments to the UN in September, in which he blamed both China and the World Health Organization (WHO) for the spread of the virus and withdrew from the global vaccine initiative, COVAX, might be exceptional but are also telling of a realist future. The world has failed to cooperatively handle this virus, and it does little to alleviate the fear of worse outbreaks to come when combined with improper mechanisms to prevent the state or non-state development of them.

The challenges of biological agents to global peace stretch into many other realms, and some that also offer solutions to ensure that the developments of 2020 need not be the beginning of a bad new chapter. Climate change, alongside the continued commercialization of wildlife products, offers a window to observe both the risks and hope to this problem. Much like the wet markets of Wuhan are widely believed to be the origin of COVID-19, so too is this trade linked to new disease outbreaks in dense tropical regions in central Africa, an area already familiar with far worse pathogens like Ebola and HIV. The hunt for “Disease X,” according to CNN, is already going on in nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where zoonotic diseases—those that spread from animal to human—are a massive fear for local populations. Vast deforestation and the sale of infected bushmeat has brought these new viruses towards people, a progress that “constitutes a threat for humanity,” according to Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum who helped first uncover Ebola in 1976. Bring several other issues into this already complicated picture, such as neocolonialism in those same areas that bring new people, new environmental destruction, and new chances for disease identification and spread, and the inherent dangers of a new destabilizing virus show.

But it is not all doom and gloom. For these currently localized challenges, global investment in climate and forest restoration could help keep a lid on these new deadly pathogens. Scientists around the world, per the CNN report, estimate that an annual investment of $30 billion into halting the illegal wildlife trade and climate degradation could help. By way of contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that the current pandemic will set the world back $28 trillion in lost output by 2025. Solutions to climate change and other key related issues go hand in hand with the solutions to preventing the next great virus outbreak, which will require committed global cooperation and dedication from more developed countries to protecting equatorial forest areas in lower-income nations especially.

This cooperation across development lines must also extend to pandemic planning so that the world is not as bewildered should a new virus emerge again. Such an achievement requires the work of the WHO and full support of its member states—including the U.S. under the forthcoming Biden administration—to equip all countries with the capacity to handle diseases locally. The first great test of this new approach will surely be the equitable distribution of vaccines to the developing world, which has so far been restricted to Western nations who have purchased many of the available doses. Such actions do not stand the world in good stead to face future challenges together.

And finally, the reality of these challenges through a military lens—not just biological weapons, but even chemical weapons, which have been more widely utilized to date—must be properly addressed. The BWC, and to some extent the Chemical Weapons Convention as well, need re-examination and the mechanisms which govern inspection ought to be strengthened. States that breach their responsibility to the conventions must face harsher condemnation than before, including Russia. Although use by rogue actors has been concerning, it is the risk of state use that may define the future of warfare in this field, according to the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium. Bioweapons, fortunately, are hard to produce and hide and even harder to control. However, the BWC has not prevented a comprehensive expansion of state programs from four to 13 worldwide since its signing. Russia’s challenge to the already fragile international hierarchy on this issue is worrisome. The continued spread and response to COVID-19 alongside current global preparedness for future outbreaks is frightening. Over the next decade, discussions about bioweapons and similar weaponry must become a central focus of international security and peace.

Shane Ward
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