COVID-19, a Biological Weapon? A Guide to Biological Weapons to Answer that Question
By Ophélie Guillouet-Lamy, Analyst, IB Consultancy
The ongoing Covid-19 crisis have pressed the international community to reflect about current and future biological threats. Subsequently, debates and rising concerns emerged about the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 was developed as a biological weapon by the Chinese. These ongoing debates and discussions make us go back to the definition of a biological weapon itself, to understand what we are really talking about, and therefore better evaluate and analyze future biological hazards. Although this article does not aim at providing an exhaustive presentation on biological weapons, we will try to refresh our memory by presenting some key elements and information about biological weapons.
Introductory concept to Biological Weapons
According to the definition given by the World Health Organization, biological weapons, also sometimes referred as Germ Weapons, are “microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants”. They are one of the four Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). A biological attack can potentially result in an epidemic or a pandemic, therefore creating a massive disruption in the society, and complexifying the response of health authorities. Biological weapons differ from other Weapons of Mass Destruction in different ways. First, the effects of a biological attack can take several days to several weeks to appear which makes it difficult to anticipate and respond. Second, contrary to other WMD, bioweapons can only target the living things (humans, crops and livestock) and have no impact on infrastructures or equipment. Finally, contrary to a nuclear program for instance, developing a biological warfare program doesn’t necessarily require significant technical and financial investments and capabilities. Information on the fabrication of biological weapons are widely spread on internet, and we will see later that this represents a major issue when it comes to ensuring the non-proliferation of such weapons. Finally, biological weapons are not to be confused with biological agents, which represent one of the elements that composes a biological weapon. Indeed, not all biological agents have been, or can be, turned into a weapon. The weaponization process of a biological agent is specific and not so common.
What is a biological weapon technically made of?
A biological weapon has 3 components: a biological agent, some additives to support the stability and dissemination of the agent, and a delivery system.
A Biological Agent
A delivery system
Biological agents are divided into two types: pathogens and toxins. Pathogens are disease-causing organisms and they have a self-replication property which enables them to act at low concentrations and to keep spreading long after the attack. Pathogens include Bacteria (which can cause diseases such as plague or anthrax), Rickettsia, Viruses, and Fungi (which can cause crops’ diseases like rice blast or cereal rust). Toxins, on the other hand, are poisonous substances produced by living things like snakes, insects, spiders, plants, etc. Although toxins are not self-replicating, their toxic power is high, and they are extremely lethal even in small quantities. A biological agent alone cannot be turned into a weapon. After adding some additives to stabilize the agent, it requires to be combined to a delivery system, which gives to the agent its full destruction capacity. Biological agents can be disseminated as aerosols, within food or water, by a zoonotic vector (rodent, insect), or by injection. These different delivery systems have specific dissemination efficiency rate. For instance, aerosols have the most widespread reach capacity and are therefore the most commonly used mean of delivery for the weaponization of biological agents. Aerosol dispersal can be done either by using spray devices or explosive devices, although the latter option is known to have the capacity to inactivate a biological agent, because of its heat-generating power. Thus, the impact of a bio attack depends on these three components: the type of agent used in the bioweapon, its preparation, and its mode of delivery. Meteorological conditions are the only external factor that can also influence the efficiency of a bioweapon: temperature, wind speed, humidity, or sunlight are therefore also to be considered.
A classification of Biological Agents
When it comes to biological agents, which are the primary element of a bioweapon, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the leading authorities in the field, provides us with a classification to help identify and address biothreats. CDC established that there are 3 categories of biological agents, category A, B and C, divided according to their level of priority, A being the highest priority level to be considered by health authorities. Category A agents can indeed be easily disseminated or transmitted (usually via air-born agents that can be spread from person-to-person through aerosols), result in a high mortality, and can cause public panic and social disruption. Category C is the third highest priority and includes the emerging pathogens that have a potential for availability, production and dissemination. Laboratories that manipulate these agents for research purposes are then divided by different Biosafety Levels, depending on the capacity and equipment they possess. From Biosafety 1 to 4, each level has specific controls and measures for containment of microbes and biological agents. Biosafety level 4 labs (BSL4) can, for instance, manipulate Ebola virus. These are the labs with the highest safety levels and their number is really limited (only 50 level 4 Labs in 22 countries, including 15 in the US).
Bioweapons non-proliferation and control
International conventions and treaties are regulating the production and use of biological weapons. The most famous one is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), signed in 1972. Today signed by 170 countries and Taiwan, the Convention bans the use of biological weapons in war and prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, or transfer of such weapons. However, the proliferation of biological weapons is difficult to detect and quantify. Moreover, until now, there are no verification or inspection procedures to prove the signatories are compliant to the Convention. Additionally, 16 Member States of the UN still had not signed nor ratified the treaty by 2013.
Rising concerns about biological weapons
Biological weapons have been and remain until today a very plausible threat, with numerous cases of use in history. Nowadays, with the spread of terrorist organizations in some regions of the world and in unstable countries which are suspected to have continued developing biological warfare programs, the threat posed by bioweapons is becoming more and more pressing. Furthermore, if biological weapons are Weapons of Mass Destruction, which means that they have the objective of causing public panic, leading to social disruption and eventually mass destruction, they are also known to be efficient for isolated assassination. One of the most recent cases demonstrating this probability is the Anthrax letters in 2001 in the USA, when letters full of Anthrax bio-agent were specifically sent to US politicians and journalists. Nevertheless, one should not confuse these realistic threats with other darker theories about Covid-19. Thanks to the information about biological weapons we previously presented, we can now find some arguments going against the unfounded concerns about the eventuality to weaponize recent viruses like Ebola or Covid-19. First, Covid-19 like Ebola, are not airborne viruses, which means that to be used as a Biological Weapon, it would rely on the transmission from person-to-person, and not on a delivery via an aerosol for instance, which is known to be the most efficient way to spread a biological agent. Additionally, Covid-19 and Ebola are very unstable viruses and would be extremely difficult and dangerous to weaponize since no vaccines are yet available, and since it would require a BSL4 Lab to manipulate these viruses. And as previously mentioned, these laboratories are in limited numbers. Now yes, one could argue that the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, originally a BSL3 Lab, was recently completed by a BSL4 facility in 2015, and therefore could have been able to manipulate this virus, and it did after the discovery of the new coronavirus. But the probability that this virus could have been created by biologists in the BSL4 Lab in Wuhan is very low, since SARS-CoV-2 does not look like any viruses already known by the scientific community, which could have served as a base to create this new virus. Indeed, until now, scientists have been able to create new viruses, only based from already existing viruses, and by changing a very small genome sequence of that virus. For COVID-19, the origin of the virus is still unknown. A study published in February 2020 by the Wuhan Institute of Virology identifies the bat coronavirus RaTG13 as the closest parent of SARS-CoV-2, sharing 96,2% of their overall genome sequence identity. A second study from the Hong Kong University and Guangdong-Hongkong Joint Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases shows that a group of beta-coronaviruses found in the pangolin species are even closer, with 97,4% similarities with the SARS-CoV-2 amino acid sequence. However, despite their apparent close parental ties, in genetic these differences are too big to assume that SARS-CoV-2 could have been elaborated in a lab, by human hand.
If questions still remain regarding the emergence of the virus, no valid proof can support the theory that the SARS-CoV-2 was weaponized and intentionally released by the Chinese. Nonetheless, this crisis makes us reflect on Biological threats in general and their consequences: biological hazards are a threat not only to our health but also to our economies, and our social and political models, and will need to be taken more seriously and better address in the future.
Ophélie currently serves as an analyst at IB Consultancy. In 2019 she graduated from Sciences Po Lille with a Master’s degree in Strategy, Intelligence and Risk Management. She draws her expertise in security and international affairs from different working experiences at the French Ministry of Interior, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), or the French Embassy in Belarus.