A National Security View Of The Covid Pandemic And Way Forward
Several pieces have been written on the natural-origin of SARS-CoV2 and lately, on the lab-origin of the virus. While the theory of origin would definitely lie in the domain of scientists, it would also be appropriate to look at this debate through the prism of national security, of protecting life and property of the citizenry.
Unlike rest of the emerging world, independent India has expended a lot of blood and treasure over conventional conflict, covering five debilitating wars, several insurgencies and at least six kinds of terrorism, focused on Kashmir, Punjab, North-East, Left Wing, Jihadi and LTTE.
India as well as the world has expended much resource on preparing for nuclear and chemical warfare, supporting the rise of a robust set of multilateral agreements, treaties and covenants.
In parallel, much like the thriving military industrial complex for armaments, which is at times accused of engendering conflict and arms race, in its classic capitalist endeavour to expand demand to absorb available supply, similar economic interest developed in industry centred around nuclear and chemical warfare. The confluence of business and provisioning for national security are a necessary evil for nations to survive.
In contrast, bio-warfare was always considered a lesser evil, an orphan of history and too dangerous for the civilised world to even contemplate, given its potential for uncontrolled amplification. Therefore, Big-Pharma and Big-Bucks did not pay much attention to the thriving Gain of Function (GoF) research experiments being conducted at US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland since World War Two.
High-ranking US Army medical corps officials published at least four volumes of their expansive research on pathogens and vectors in the homeland and overseas, since that World War. There are also unconfirmed, yet voluminous, media reports of several leaks from these bio-laboratories in the US and those run by Centre for Disease Control in Central Asia.
Yet, in the commendable spirit of transparency, the ethic in the US was to archive and declassify a fair share of research conducted, something that is prominent by absence for Chinese, Russian and Israeli research on prevention, detection and countering of bio-warfare.
Similarly neglected was Chinese biological research, especially after the depredations of bio-warfare visited on Manchuria by Japan in the pre-War days and then allegedly by the US in the Korean War. In his seminal piece in 2002, on Chinese capacity for bio- and chemical-warfare, Eric Croddy studied the works in Mandarin of the most noted bio-scientists of the time.
He wrote of Zhou Enlai’s official statement in 1951 criticising USA’s grant of amnesty to Japan’s Shiiro Ishii, the key perpetrator of China’s pre-War bio-suffering, conflating Japan and USA as opponents in China’s resolve to initiate a bio-weapons programme.
With several decades of experience of US and China with such research, the past two decades witnessed an interesting deviation from the highly secretive nature of similar cutting-edge research, that of collaboration. Western scientists and defence agencies began training Chinese bio-research scientists on high-risk pathogens, even allowing a significant set of them to intern with sensitive institutions like USAMRIID at Maryland, in Canada and in Australia.
This bio-friendship extended to France assisting the Wuhan Institute of Virology in building China’s only BSL-IV lab. All these endeavours were encouraged with large infusions of funding from Dr. Peter Daszak’s New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, an officially recognised defence-contractor for bio-agents for the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. Much of this discreet bio-affair appears to have ended since the catastrophic appearance of one such pathogen.
In the above context of an extraordinarily superior and secretive bio-research programme of at least two super-powers, India’s options to react to the sudden appearance of a fatal pathogen, appear to be limited.
The common view appears to be to accept the theory of a genetically-engineered virus as more than probable and move on, while awaiting the third wave. A deeper assessment may reveal that India could take the lead in this once-in-generation catastrophe, rated by some as the worst man-made intentional disaster after the nuclear bombing of Japan. Indian laws are robust and modern in dealing with bio-warfare.
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) written in 1860 had recognised the dangerous nature of disease and provided for penal action against negligent and malignant acts likely to spread disease in Sections 269 and 270 of Chapter XIV, which focused on offences affecting public health and safety. The outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1896 revealed inadequacies in existing law regarding enforcing social distancing, quarantine of diseased persons and restraining travellers.
As a result, the British Government empowered itself with penal powers by enacting The Epidemic Diseases (ED) Act of 1897. However, this Act was focused on prevention of spread of the disease, rather than detection of the crime, presuming that disease was spread naturally. These laws passed the test of time over a hundred years.
Only in 2005, the Central Government brought two landmark pieces of legislation, addressing both realms of criminal conduct, those of prevention and detection. The Weapons of Destruction (WMD) Act of 2005 defined penal action against the manufacture, use and delivery of biological agents, thereby legislating its commitment to the Convention on Bacteriological Weapons, commonly referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972.
Concomitant to this, more penal powers were enshrined in Chapter X of the Disaster Management (DM) Act of 2005, making violation of mandatory rules on social distancing and quarantine punishable. A final legal gap was bridged with inclusion of the WMD Act at serial 7 of the Schedule to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act 2008, making the crime of bio-warfare punishable as a terrorist act.
With 30 million cases, ~400,000 deaths and a robust legal infrastructure, India has enough cause to scale this matter to international levels. Article VI of the BWC provides adequate grounds to make a complaint against “any State acting in breach of obligations” to the “Security Council of the United Nations”. The noise generated in global media is till date, fairly theoretical, pivoted around a WHO enquiry or repeat of another such inquiry.
However, what remains unspoken and unpublicised is the complete lack of initiation of criminal action against State or non-State players in any jurisdiction for this mega-crime. This is where India, one of the most-affected, can rise up, show its leadership and follow the clear path as laid out in domestic and international law.
(The writer is one of the most decorated police officials of the country and is a former DGP of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal)