New Emerging Infectious Diseases and Bioterrorism

Dr. Syed Javaid Khurshid, Centre for International Strategic Studies

Bioterrorism is defined as the intentional release or threat of release of biological agents, viruses’ bacteria, fungi, or toxins in order to cause harm to humans, livestock, and agriculture. Nowadays, it is often very difficult to differentiate between intentional and unintentional release of biological agents, therefore, it is instrumental that we prepare the world against both scenarios.

In addition, preparedness for such scenarios is crucial since biological agents are more dangerous than chemical and nuclear weapons. Furthermore, there is no existing procedure verifying how many states have biological weapons or the capacity to develop them. In 1975, it was estimated that one or two member states other than the superpowers had biological weapons, but now, approximately 12-15 countries acquired such weapons. Consequently, the international community is continuously working for the sake of mankind to stop biological agents from being used as weapons. As such, one of the main tools placed by the international community to govern the use of biological agents and their weaponization is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) framework. The BWC has been ratified by 179 countries in 1972. However, despite its wide ratification, there have been several incidences where international security was threatened by acts of bioterrorism. This has pressed bioscientists and decision-makers to rethink how to confront the threats of bioterrorism to national and international security resulting from different types of bacteria, viruses, toxins, and the diseases caused by them. Nonetheless, the 183 countries party to the BWC do not have any legislation in place to implement it. On top of that, we know that there are no verification producers for the Convention’s implementation–this puts all states at risk, and vulnerable, to acts of bioterrorism. Another concerning barrier to the BWC’s implementation is that there is no universal method for control of disease outbreak and to cover the S&T and biotechnological advances in the field, while there is also no global procedure for the surveillance of outbreaks of infectious diseases. This has been quite evident during the COVID-19 outbreak, where even the UN and the WHO have taken no combined action while there was no MOU in place between these organizations and states to address the challenge. It seems that only stringent national implementation procedures and CBMs can help to control the threats from biological material.

The relatively accessible production of many bacteria has made bioterrorism threats easy to operationalize. In order to control and mitigate the threat and to increase investments in bioresearch, the US coined the term “Emerging Infectious Diseases” in 2001 and subdivided it into two other categories- the New Emerging Infectious Disease and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases. Emerging Infectious Disease refers to the disease of the future which have gone through R&D processes, whereas new emerging diseases are those on which no R&D is done yet. Under these two categories- we should be thinking of all future, foreseeable suspected diseases and their control. The reemerging Infectious Diseases are more dangerous especially for developing countries because these diseases re-appear with more resistant bacterial strains which are very difficult to control.

Some of the diseases falling under the category of Emerging Infectious Diseases have already been identified by the WHO, namely the Crimean-Congo Haeomorrphagic Fever, Ebola, Marburg, MERS, SARS, Nipah, Riffat-Valley Fever, while the Re-emerging Infectious diseases category includes diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and MBR which raise global-health awareness, as they appear as more resistance to drugs. Besides this, New Emerging Infectious Diseases are causing additional problems, such as HSN1, Zika Virus. The scenario has now been incrementally changed after the global outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic, which is a very widespread but less lethal disease. The important factor I would like to mention here is that developed countries have their vaccine banks in which they keep important vaccines for their whole population in case of emergency. Whereas, developing countries can only imagine having vaccine banks in place in cases of emergency, and are currently very far away from this essential requirement. When examining influential factors on the spread and emergence of New Emerging Infection Diseases and Re-Emerging Disease, the important contributory factor of climate change plays a crucial role. Weather variables such as precipitation, temperature, drought, and flood have both direct and indirect effects on outbreaks of infectious diseases transmitted through and by rodents, mosquitos, and water. Research groups worldwide are needed to develop a Predictive Framework to integrate knowledge from ecophysiology and modelling for effective control on these contributory factors. In addition, bioterrorism is more dangerous than chemical and nuclear terrorism due to one of its most important traits: the incubation delay or period. It takes 7-20 days for some diseases to appear. As such, no nation can protect its population by simply screening its incoming travellers. Hence, in order to control bioterrorism and realize the threats it poses priority in international security, we have to develop stringent surveillance methods, efficient, rapid, and sensitive screening procedures of detection, and efficient and fast methods of reporting. It is also important to mention that the Disease Early Warning System (DEWS) can play an important role. Some organizations can play a role in the surveillance and collection of samples, while others can assist by focusing on R&D findings to control the disease. However, upon examining the provisions of the BWC, consisting of 15 articles, only two concern the control mechanisms of infectious disease and their effective implementation, namely Articles IV and X. To fully implement the BWC, state parties are obliged to translate the commitments of the convention into effective national actions. The most important implementation aspect which has been emphasized in the seventh review conference in 2011, is the development of awareness programs across industry, academia, and research organizations. Additionally, the other crucial aspect focuses on the strengthening of capacity building for surveillance and detection of Emerging and Re-emerging infectious diseases outbursts at the national and international levels. Nowadays, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, the most crucial factor in addressing the spread of biological agents touches upon collaboration at the international level to control similarly infectious diseases. This will be the most important topic under discussion in the upcoming 9th Review Committee Meeting in 2021.

Given the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, we, as the international community, should come together and tack the following steps. A National Action Plan could be implemented with three recommendations directly relevant to the topic of emerging and re-emerging of infectious diseases and control of bioterrorism. Firstly, to increase teaching and training; secondly, to introduce disease early warning system and thus surveillance, detection, and efficient reporting; and, finally, to develop good vaccine production facilities and a vaccine bank. After the coronavirus outbreak and experience gained, national CBMs should be equally and globally strengthened. First of all, international collaboration is required between the United Nations, World Health Organization, the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. Second the global capacity of the UN and WHO should be increased in terms of effective role definitions and testing. The ninth review conference in 2021 should work out a way forward to handle this kind of scenario in the future.


Dr. Syed Javaid Khurshid worked for about 40 years for Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in different capacities as Consultant/Advisor/DG Panning & Projects, Director Biosciences, PAEC and Executive Secretary of Abdus Salam International Nathiagali Summer College. He also served as President Pakistan Nuclear Society 2016-2018 and Director at Large, Islamabad Chapter of Planning Management Institute, USA.

Presently, Dr. Javaid is working as a Senior Research Fellow, at the Centre for International Strategic Studies, a think tank. He is advising on mitigation of WMDs and CBRNs, Nuclear Knowledge Management for SDGs & Climate Change. Technical Member of MoFA Internal Compliance Committee of Resolution 1540 Export Control Laws. He is a founder member of Friends of ICTP Trieste, Itlay. He is Secretary of National Member Organizations, IIASA, Austria. Has more than 70 international/National publications and referees to many journals and on the advisory board of 4 international/national Journals. He is a Fellow of the Pakistan Nuclear Society and Chemical Society of Pakistan.