With the globe now in its third pandemic year, biosecurity and public health experts say that COVID-19 and its variants have demonstrated how vulnerable nations are to biological warfare.
“COVID was a wake-up call,” said James Giordano, executive director of the Institute for Biodefense Research and a professor of neurology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He studies how bioscience technologies can be weaponized.
“What COVID really brought into the light is the lack of preparedness for a biological threat, whether it’s naturally occurring or man-made, or some combination of both.”
In the United States, the patchwork response to COVID-19 caused the pandemic to spin out of control in every single wave. More than 980,000 Americans have been killed by the virus — a death rate far higher than those experienced by other wealthy countries.
China, meanwhile — an economic rival of the U.S. with close ties to Russia — has followed a zero-tolerance strategy. Any small cluster of COVID cases prompts the government to swiftly impose strict lockdowns.
While this approach is viewed by many as draconian, China argues it works. Out of 1.4 billion residents, China reports fewer than 14,000 deaths (there is widespread skepticism about the accuracy of that figure). Canada, with a population of 38 million, has lost more than 38,000 lives to COVID.
The U.S. and Canada also imposed lockdowns, but mistrust in government and science and rampant misinformation led small pockets of the population to loudly resist the measures. And jurisdictional division of powers meant each province and state decided on their own courses of action, with some opting for fewer restrictions than others.
Then there’s the political turmoil. COVID-19 policy became a political wedge issue, dividing the population and fuelling partisan rhetoric in the middle of a public health emergency.
“Our near-peer competitors and potential adversaries are watching,” Giordano said.
“COVID demonstrated a mass disruptive effect. Over and above the destruction it had for human life with regard to mortality, the disruptive effect on infrastructure, economies, stabilities, even the political span with regard to social integrity, was overwhelming.”
Mixed opinions on risk of biological attack
Giordano said he believes there is an “almost 100 per cent risk” of bioweapons “of some new or novel sort” being deployed somewhere in the world “within the next five years.”
Dan Kaszeta is less pessimistic. He’s a specialist in biological weapons who worked with the U.S. Army, the White House Military Office and the U.S. Secret Service.
Kaszeta describes the threat as “low but not negligible.” He said there’s no real incentive for a nation state to trigger a pandemic because there’s a high risk of the virus spreading back to the country that released it — making COVID-19 and other fast-spreading pathogens unpredictable and unappealing bioweapons.
“Achieving a raging global pandemic that nobody can control — that’s nihilism,” Kaszeta said. “The whole arc of military technology is towards precision lethality, not indiscriminate lethality.”
And conventional weapons like guns and bombs have become much cheaper for armies to acquire in recent decades, he added.
But Kaszeta and Giordano agree that the technology needed to weaponize pathogens no longer requires massive lab facilities and hundreds of scientists. It’s available to anyone — including rogue actors.
New technology elevates the threat
The big concern is gene-editing technology. Giordano said it’s “available literally over the counter” and can give any university-educated person the means to modify existing organisms or make new organisms that are highly infectious.
He points to CRISPR, gene-editing tech available online for less than $300. The American Security Project has warned that this technology “could be a danger to humanity.”
Used in cancer research, CRISPR allows researchers to alter organisms at a genetic level by taking DNA from one and moving it to another.
David Gisselsson is a pathologist and geneticist with Lund University in Sweden who has worked with the Swedish government on pandemic preparedness. He said the alarming thing about this technology is that it can be used by virtually anyone, anywhere — and the results don’t have to be sophisticated to serve as a terror weapon.
“If you have someone who wants to use this for maleficent purposes, then it’s quite easy to do. And you don’t even have to be a state actor. You can act on your own,” says Gisselsson.
“My thought is that [the pathogen doesn’t] really have to be a very good organism. It can be quite sloppy. As long as it causes fear, this new elevated wariness that we have about pandemics will trigger an enormous pandemic response and maybe an overreaction.”
Gisselsson, who recently wrote a paper on the topic, said he fears that even the smallest bioweapon leak could create social chaos.
“I can only imagine what will happen next time if there’s something which is new, seemingly dangerous but maybe not so dangerous, and this could trigger a very pronounced effect,” he said.
COVID-19 put bioterrorism back on the world’s radar
In April 2020, not long after the pandemic struck, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that bioterrorists could take inspiration from the pandemic’s impact.
“Non-state groups could gain access to virulent strains that could pose similar devastation to societies around the globe,” he said.
The Canadian Armed Forces runs a biological defence system. The government is in the process of procuring and building an improved one, but it won’t be ready until 2030.
CBC News asked for an interview with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Defence Minister Anita Anand. Both declined.
A statement issued by Mendicino’s office acknowledges COVID-19 could “heighten the risks associated with bioterrorism, biological weapons proliferation and the deliberate use of disease as a weapon” and said the government is “working to address it on a variety of fronts.”
Real-world examples of bioterrorism are rare. Shortly after 9/11, letters containing samples of anthrax — a rare infectious disease — were mailed to politicians and members of the media, killing five people and infecting 17 others. Anthrax has a high fatality rate (as high as 80 per cent), but unlike COVID-19, it can’t be spread from person to person.
In 1993, a Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo attempted to kill thousands by spraying anthrax from a rooftop in Kameido, but it had no apparent effect.
All eyes on Russia
Some have suggested Russia is preparing to use biological weapons in its war on Ukraine and may already have deployed chemical weapons. The U.S. and Britain are investigating a report that Russian troops dropped a poisonous substance on the besieged city of Mariupol, causing respiratory failure in victims.
Chemical weapons involve toxic chemicals that immediately suffocate or burn its victims. Biological weapons are viruses or bacteria that are slower-moving and, as a result, harder to detect and contain.
The White House has warned that Russia may be creating a pretext for a biological weapons attack. In February, Moscow accused the U.S. of hiding bioweapon labs in Ukraine containing deadly pathogens like anthrax and the plague. China backed up that accusation soon after.
“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false-flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” tweeted Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
The “clear pattern” Psaki cited is a reference to Russia making similar claims before chemical attacks were launched against civilians during the Syrian civil war.
Global bioweapons treaty lacks teeth
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a global, legally-binding treaty between 130 countries that has been in force since 1975. It outlaws the development or use of biological weapons. But critics argue it has significant flaws.
Walter Dorn is an arms control expert and professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. He was part of an expert group in the 1990s that pushed for more teeth in the BWC.
Dorn said the treaty needs a verification protocol along the lines of nuclear and chemical weapons treaties — a way to confirm that countries are complying. The BWC does not have the means or authority to investigate a threat. The UN Security Council does — but it never has.
“I think we need to both be prepared to prevent a spread and also to make the treaty more effective,” said Dorn. “Even though biological weapons are low probability of actual use, there are programs now to develop them. And there are violators of the BWC that need to be held to account.”