The COVID-19 crisis has become the centre of the USA-China tussle with each blaming the other for the global pandemic. Controversially, the virus is being claimed (by the US) to have originated from a lab in China’s Wuhan while China claims its originated in the USA- though both claims lack any evidence to support them. However, the entire issue has thrown open the question about international readiness to tackle biosecurity risks. In this light, India needs to take a look into its biosecurity preparedness and plug all the big gaps to prevent being blindsided by a dangerous biological agent- either man-made or natural- a second time.
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:
- Access to facilities that deal with such biological agents
- The storage of such materials and data related to them
- Publication policies with respect to potentially harmful biological agents.
- 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 associated environmental risks.
- This understanding includes aspects like:
- Introduction of plant pests and diseases
- Introduction of animal pests and diseases
- Introduction of zoonoses
- Use and release of genetically modified organisms or their products
- 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:
- Use of PPE to prevent accidental exposure of research workers to pathogens/ toxins is biosafety.
- Preventing unauthorized access to facilities working on such pathogen/ toxins is considered as biosecurity.
Why is biosecurity 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 Shanghai Cooperation Organization‘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.
What are the challenges?
- 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.
- The ability to detect and conclude such non-compliances is affected by how quickly an international investigation team is launched (as fresh forensic evidence are vital) and full access to the affected area by the investigating team. Eg: the 1981 investigations into an accusation by the US of the Soviet’s use of mycotoxins were inconclusive.
What is the way forward?
- 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.
- It is critical to make even the normal labs and medical facilities capable of seamlessly transforming into biosecurity infrastructure for expedited and reliable testing, vaccine development and deployment.
- Multi-utility biological agents and their related technologies must be subject to export control and non-proliferation measures.
- There is a need to revamp the ethical overview of the R&D works in areas like genetic engineering.
- Ensuring biosafety is an important part of ensuring biosecurity. Research facilities that work with potentially dangerous biological agents need to be categorised according to the safety levels (eg: BSL categorisation) and the necessary precautions for that level must be taken. This will reduce the possibility of loss or theft of such hazardous agents from the facilities.
- In case of accidents or thefts at these facilities, personnel must have a well-oiled set of protocols to follow to ensure maximum mitigation of possible adverse effects and better chances of retrieval.
- It should also be mainstreamed into security, defence and counter-terrorism strategies. Experts have called for the establishment of a National Rapid Deployment Biosecurity Force composed of defence and police personnel and health responders. This Force can be used to undertake bio-defence activities and play related relief and response roles.
- There is a need for effective and credible bio-intelligence and bio-surveillance system at both- the national and international levels. Such a system can continuously look for the emergence of new infectious/ harmful agents and potential bioweapons and provide intelligence for deterrence.
- There is a need to incorporate medical intelligence, infectious disease risk assessment and pandemic predictions into the national defence intelligence.
- Like in the case of conventional counter-terrorism, cooperating with friendly biosecurity powers is essential.
- It is also imperative to deter the development of bioweapons– by both state and non-state actors.
- Instead of sacrificing WHO to geopolitical pressures, the countries need to empower the global health body to strengthen its health security mechanisms so that it can freely assess such health emergencies in ground zero countries.
- India can call for reinforcing the BTWC using a legally-binding verification protocol at the upcoming review conference in 2021.
- Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which is being championed by India, needs to be updated with regards to biosecurity.
- Implementing 2019 UN General Assembly Resolution 1540 on disarmament measures to prevent the acquisition of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) by terrorists.
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.
Practice Question for Mains
‘The COVID-19 Crisis should inspire countries to recommit to the principle of universal bio-deterrence’. Comment. (250 words)