An Israeli biological warfare analyst has made the sensational claim that the Coronavirus 2019-nCoV, which is on a killing spree, was developed by China as part of its covert biological weapons programme. The claim got wide currency after it was picked up by the Washington Times. This happens because biological warfare has always been a frightening theme for ages. Bio-weapons, germ warfare, bio-terrorism and biowarfare are terms that stoke the deepest fears in human minds.

There's no evidence yet that the deadly coronavirus strain was leaked from a Chinese lab. The fact that the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus infection started, also hosts the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory appeared to give credence to the theory. However, the prevailing scientific belief is that the killer virus mutated in snakes and then transmitted to animals. Humans might have contracted the virus at the seafood market where a variety of live animals including foxes, pigs and bats are sold.

Why do bio-weapon theories emerge quickly?

Building on the site of the Harbin bioweapon facility of Unit 731
Building on the site of the Harbin bioweapon facility of Unit 731 Wikimedia Commons

The simple answer is that history shows mankind toyed with the idea of using biological agents for the annihilation of a vast number of people. State or non-state actors could be creating the malicious virus, and there's always possible that some of these agents can be leaked accidentally or by design. The bio-weapon theorists point out that the Wuhan seafood and meat market is just 20 miles from the lab, suggesting that lab animals injected with the virus could have escaped and led to the mutation of the virus.

When was biological weapon used first?

It is believed that biological warfare in its crudest form happened millennia back. Well, you couldn't possibly say it was the particular army that used it first Ancient spearmen lacing their projectiles with deadly poisons is part of the popular culture handed down through millennia.

However, the widely circulated theory is that the ancient Assyrians used germs to win wars. They are believed to have infected enemy wells with a fungus containing LSD-like chemicals that sent the victims into a stupor. If apocryphal stories are true, the Assyrians didn't go beyond 'sedating' the enemies to win wars. However, the latter-day experiments with bio-weapons have been far more lethal, mindless and destructive.

coronovirus first image
TEM image of BetaCoV 2019-2020 Image courtesy: IVDC, China CDC

What are the main bio-warfare pathogens?

According to a NATO paper on biological warfare, there are at least 39 biological agents that can cause destruction on the sly during a war. These agents include bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae and toxins that cause diseases like Anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague, Ebola, Haemorrhagic Fever, Hanta Pulmonary Syndrome, Rift Valley fever, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and the like. Here's a look in detail:

Bacillus anthracis bacteria: This causes Anthrax, which is perhaps the synonym for biological warfare in the popular imagination. It is by far the most dangerous agent ever used as a biological weapon. The anthrax spores can remain active for years and are found naturally in soil. It can be produced in a lab and used a biological weapon. Anthrax is believed to have originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia and has killed thousands at various points in history.

Variola major; This virus cause Smallpox, the deadly disease that was the scourge of generations. The highly contagious smallpox has no cure and has killed populations en-masse until a vaccine was made to check the infection.

Marburg Virus: This virus causes Marburg Haemorrhagic Fever. this is a Category A bio-warfare agent according to the United States CDC. The virus was originally hosted by the African fruit bat but it can be isolated and produced as a bio-weapon.

Madagascar plague
Health workers wearing protective clothing prepare to carry an abandoned dead body presenting with Ebola. Reuters

Ebola Virus: Ebola, which was discovered in the 1970s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in the news in recent times after having killed thousands in Africa. It's one of the deadliest viruses with a fatality rate of over 50 percent. state agents have reportedly produced Ebola virus, but there has been no confirmation.

Nairovirus, Phlebovirus and Hantavirus: These viruses cause Korean haemorrhagic fever. This family of viruses cause human infections like Hanta Pulmonary Syndrome, Rift Valley fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever. Some of these virus strains cause the death of as many as 50 percent of the affected people.

Yersinia pestis: This virus causes the affliction popularly known as pneumonic plague. There have been instances of this virus being created in labs as a bioweapon.

Coronavirus
Coronavirus outbreak in China (Representational picture) Pixabay

Who used bio-weapons in war?

Throughout modern history, there have been instances of biological pathogens being used for biological warfare and terror attacks. It is believed that the anthrax virus was accidentally released from a Soviet military testing facility in the late 70s. Iraq made anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin in large quantities. it was reported that Iraq produced anthrax for use in Scud missiles. Also, as per the admission of a Soviet defector, the former communist republic made smallpox virus in large quantities. It is also reported that Japan used C botulinum toxins in the Manchurian war. The Japanese bio-warfare units allegedly infected war prisoners with C botulinum toxins.

According to Army-Technology, the Soviets started a secret project in 1980 to make smallpox virus in large quantities to be used as a biological weapon. the report also cites a former Soviet scientist testifying that the Red Army used Francisella tularensis bacterium against the German troops during World War II. The outbreak of Nairovirus, Phlebovirus and Hantavirus infections during the Korean War. About 3,000 American and Korean soldiers were infected with the virus but it isn't clear if it was a bio-weapon attack. The Soviet scientists are believed to have transformed Marburg virus into aerosol form to make it a strategic biological weapon.

Iraq apparently violated the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention norms many times. One of the big violations was the production and deployment of weapons using the deadly Aflatoxin, which is derived from certain strains of fungi. The United Nations Special Commission destroyed Iraq's stockpile of Aflatoxin after the Gulf War. Although the UK, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan had R&D programs in biological weapons during World War II, only Japan has been proved to have used such weapons, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Rise of Biological Terrorism

Terrorism
Pixabay

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) did not totally stop state actors from pursuing biological weapons programme but it did stem the tide. However, since then the world has seen a proliferation of biological weapons in the hands of terror outfits. One notable bio-weapons programme was by the Japanese AUM Shinrikyo sect which saw the members using anthrax and botulinum toxin on various targets, including a U.S. naval base at Yokosuka. Al-Qaeda made and used biological weapons in Afghanistan.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult launched a deadly attack in 1995, when they used Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people injuring more than 5,000.

A whole lot of unsubstantiated or unproven charges of bio-terrorism have muddled the discourse on the development and use of biological agents to destabilise political opponents. While the CIA accuses KGB of developing HIV, the Russian spy agency returns the favour in kind. In the Russian narrative, the Americans created HIV to destabilise Cuba, while the argument on the other side is that KGB made it to damage America. Cuba, however, was the first nation to file a complaint under the BTWC, saying that the US released a plant pathogen. It has been reported widely, though not proved, that the US mulled the use of biological agents to kill Fidel Castro.