QUESTION : The COVID-19 Crisis should inspire countries to recommit to the principle of universal bio-deterrence’. Comment.
PLANNING FOR A BIOSECURE FUTURE
- Biosecurity and Issues
WHY IN NEWS ?
- The rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades and its still-to-be-understood implications haven’t received sufficient attention from security studies or policy communities.
MORE ABOUT THIS NEWS :
• COVID-19 has made it clear that preparedness of nation states and tenuous global security arrangements were insufficient in dealing with the crisis.
• On the other hand, the growth of exponential technologies such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is bound to change the theory and practice of national security.
• In this context, the rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades haven’t received sufficient attention from the security studies or policy communities.
o COVID-19 has further highlighted the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology.
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY ?
- • It is a field of science that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.
- • Synthetic biology can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells.
CONCERNS OVER SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY :
• There is the possibility of deliberate misuse.
• The fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in synthetic biology applications and their potential misuse.
• Accidental leaks of experimental pathogens occurs due to insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols.
o There has been very little focus on threats emanating from biological sources.
• More focus is given to nuclear weapons than the risks of synthetic biology.
o This is despite the fact that a biological attack could have serious implications even though its effects are less immediate.
• For bioweapons, there is only one treaty (Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972) with no implementing body.
o The BTWC does not have a verification clause, nor does it have clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research in this field.
o As per Article 1 of BTWC, while bio-weapons are banned, research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed. However, bio-defence research could potentially be used to create bio-weapons.
CHALLENGES FOR INDIA :
• Poor disease surveillance,
• Pathetic state of the healthcare system.
• No coordination among institutions dealing with biosafety and biosecurity threats.
o Example: Implementation of biosafety guidelines is the responsibility of the Science and Technology Ministry and the Environment Ministry.
However, labs dealing with biological research are set up under the Indian Council of Medical Research under the Ministries of Health and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under Ministries Agriculture.
• Border control institutions is not yet prepared for defending against pathogens or dangerous biological organisms or agents arriving from abroad.
• The implementation of biosecurity measures in India is not uniform as it’s under the purview of individual states.
• The fact that India is already susceptible to pest invasions implies that even detecting an act of agro-terrorism (bioterrorism directed towards agricultural sector), let alone tracing its origin is difficult.
• The import of potentially invasive pests and biological agents is to be curbed by the customs officials, who have been criticised for lacking training in the area. Eg: identification of a potentially invasive species’ seed among the baggage of incoming travellers.
• Quarantine officers have been rendered essentially toothless as Destructive Insects and Pests Act of 1914 and the Livestock Importation Act of 1898 are only subsidiaries to the Customs Act of 1962. This is one of the aspects the 2013 Biosecurity Bill sought to change.
• The biosecurity bill drafted in India has been pending approval since 2014. Also, it does not take zoonoses (like Coronaviruses) into account.
• Unlike many conventional threats to national security, novel biological agents like the SARS CoV 2 cannot be effectively anticipated.
• There is also a significant time lag in coming up with a potent treatment/ vaccine, which makes the issue even more dangerous.
• Biological agents like viruses show a higher level of mutations and there is also the issue of latency period- which impedes the disease detection and control measures.
• Such biological attacks (intentional/ accidental or natural) poses double jeopardy to the defence forces of the country- the armed forces may get affected and weakened by the biological agent and their capacity to handle the conventional threats of terrorist attacks and WMDs is diluted as resources are diverted for the domestic response- thus posing a security challenge.
• In light of the discussion and accusations about the role of Wuhan Institute of Virology in the COVID-19 crisis, the challenge of differentiating between offensive (or aggressive) and defensive (or peaceful) purposes of such biological agents have come into focus and posing a challenge.
• Even local mismanagement of a biosecurity threat has the potential to expand and cause an effect on an international scale. This calls for international level cooperation characterised by transparency, credibility and timely action.
• Lack of verification regime under the BTWC. Any nation with a developed enough pharmaceutical sector can potentially develop a biological WMD which makes the framing of a verification regime a difficult task.
• Development of such a verification regime is further
complicated by the consideration that a non-state actor may develop a bioweapon.
WHAT IS BIOSECURITY ?
• Biosecurity covers a range of biological threats– ranging from infectious pathogens like the 2001 Anthrax attack on the USA, along with toxins produced by such agents to pests, weeds and diseases that affect the agricultural and livestock sectors.
• According to WHO, biosecurity is defined as “institutional and personal security measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of pathogens and toxins”.
• This understanding includes various aspects like:
1. Access to facilities that deal with such biological agents
2. The storage of such materials and data related to them
3. Publication policies with respect to potentially harmful biological agents.
4. Technologies that deal with the resurrection of extinct viruses, construction of viruses that are guarded or viruses that are drug-resistant or have no current vaccine.
• According to FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation), biosecurity is ‘strategic and integrated approach’ that includes policies and regulations that deal with the risks posed to food safety, animal and plant life and their health and asso environmental risks.
• This understanding includes aspects like:
1. Introduction of plant pests and diseases
2. Introduction of animal pests and diseases
3. Introduction of zoonoses.
4. Use and release of GMO or their products
5. Invasive species and their genotypes
IS IT DIFFERENT FROM BIOSAFETY ?
• Biosecurity is different from biosafety.
• According to WHO, biosafety is “the containment principles, technologies and practices that are implemented to prevent unintentional exposure to pathogens and toxins, or their accidental release”.
• An illustration of the difference:
1. Use of PPE to prevent accidental exposure of research workers to pathogens/ toxins is biosafety.
2. Preventing unauthorized access to facilities working on such pathogen/ toxins is considered as biosecurity.
WHY IS BIOSAFETY NECESSARY ?
• It holds direct relevance to sustainable agriculture, safe food production and protection of the environment and biodiversity.
• India is already susceptible to pest and weed attacks. In the last 15 years, there have been at least 10 major attacks. In recent times, India is facing invasion by locusts, fall armyworm and other pests.
• With the much-needed liberalization of the agricultural trade, the risk of introduction of non-native pests and weeds are on the rise. This poses a serious threat to food security and economy– especially in a country where a significant portion of the population is still dependent on the agriculture sector.
• Climate change is expected to fuel threats from cross-boundary disease. Eg: Ug-99 wheat stem rust fungi and the avian influenza disease.
• Biosecurity is an important aspect of on-farm food safety programs to ensure the health of consumers.
• Along with health, biosecurity is of paramount importance to our national security.
• Extreme biological events like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shows the potential destruction that could ensue in the absence of biosecurity. The UN had termed it ‘the biggest international crisis since World War II’.
• Not even the economically powerful nations are immune to the effects of mass contagion. The recent COVID-19 crisis has illustrated how such biological events can bring the global economy to its knees in a matter of months.
• The global concern about bioterrorism has been increasing over the years. India highlighted the threat posed by bioterrorism- terming it a ‘contagious plague’- at the SCO‘s first Military Medicine Conference in September 2019.
• With the increasing advancement of technology, the creation of genetic chimaeras in the microbial world and manufacturing of increasingly hazardous compounds have become easier. There is a need to evolve the security plans to keep up with the fast-changing technologies.
HOW IS INDIA DEALING WITH THIS ISSUE ?
• The key ministries tackling biosecurity in India are the ministries of health and family welfare, science and technology and the environment ministry.
• The various aspects of biosecurity in India are managed by ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research), CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization).
• Biosecurity is considered as a health and agriculture matter in India- hence it is largely dealt with by the states. The centre issues guidelines which the states modify to suit their local needs.
• In 2004, the National Farmers Commission headed by M S Swaminathan had recommended the establishment of a National Agricultural Biosecurity Program.
• In 2013, the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill sought to set up an ‘Agricultural Biosecurity Authority’– a high powered body to cover 4 sectors: animal health, plant health, marine organisms and agriculturally important microbes. However, this is still waiting for approval.
• The import of invasive pests and weeds are curbed by the customs department. The Plant Quarantine Order of 2003 categorized species as restricted, prohibited, etc. with respect to their import into India. The categorization under CITES is also adhered to for controlling the species’ introduction.
• The ICMR manages several bio-safety level (BSL) labs in India. There are 30 labs of BSL-3 and BSL-2+ that are operational.
There are 2 BSL-4 (highest safety level) labs- one at Pune (National Institute of Virology) and another at Bhopal (National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases).
• India is a signatory to the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972– the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. It has also ratified the treaty. The convention makes use of ‘confidence-building measures’ like consultations among the parties, complaints to the UNSC, assistance to victims, etc.
BIOLOGICAL AND TOXIN WEAPONS CONVENTION (BTWC):
• The first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, was opened for signature on 10 April 1972.
• The BTWC entered into force on 26 March 1975.
• The Geneva Protocol prohibits the use but not possession or development of chemical and biological weapons.
• BTWC commits the 182 states to prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.
• Egypt, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and Tanzania have signed but not ratified it.
• Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Namibia, South Sudan, Tuvalu have neither signed nor ratified it.
• The absence of any formal verification regime to monitor compliance has limited the effectiveness of the Convention.
WAY FORWARD :
• The future of national security studies will be forced to undergo a paradigm shift if it must retain any policy impact at all.
• To do this, there is a need to carefully review the biosecurity systems in place where bio-technologies are in use.
• Also, there needs to be more conversation between health specialists and bio-weapons/defence specialists to define new distinction between biological weapons (a field governed by the BTWC) and diseases (a domain under the World Health Organization).
• There is a need for an integrated approach to ensure biosecurity in India- in line with the One Health Approach.
• The Healthcare, economy and the general infrastructure must be made bio-attack- and pandemic-proof.
• There is a dire need for mainstreaming of biosecurity– often under-represented as policy and financial priority.
• Biosecurity must be made a central subject– as in the case of countries like Japan and the UK. This will ensure a more uniform implementation of measures.
• Authorities dealing with Phyto-sanitation and regulating the entry of invasive biological agents must be provided with adequate training.
• There is also a need for close coordination with the national public health system for all-round bio-security.
• Improving self-sufficiency in medical supply chains, technologies, essential goods and services, etc. is necessary for improving immunity to such attacks.
• For differentiating the peaceful and anti-social uses of the biological agents, India needs to reengineer and revamp the system of verification and certification.
The COVID-19 crisis has not only affected India and the world nations, but also the country of origin. It has shown that every country would become a victim in case of a biological war- without any victors. The crisis should serve as a reminder of the importance of the doctrine of universal bio-deterrence. India, for its part, should strengthen its biosecurity system while mobilizing international cooperation to strengthen international biosecurity.