Bioterrorism : A Global Challenge - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations

Bioterrorism : A Global Challenge - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations

Why in News?

During the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO's) first military medicine conference, Defence Minister of India Rajnath Singh said that bioterrorism is a real threat in today’s time and the armed forces medical services should be at the forefront of combating the menace.


Bioterrorism covers a very broad spectrum of concerns, from catastrophic terrorism with mass casualties, to microevents using low technology but producing civil unrest, disruption, disease, disabilities and death. The threat of bioterrorism, long ignored and denied, has heightened over the past few years. The international terrorist attacks are changing over the past years towards the use of more deadly weapons for massive civil disruption. Most terrorists use explosive and guns but some groups now show interest in using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) materials in order to cause mass casualties. Many countries are possessed, pursued or capable of acquiring weapons. In contrast of accessing functional chemical, radiological or nuclear materials, biological materials are produced easily.

We are ill prepared to deal with a terrorist attack that employs biological weapons. As was done in response to the nuclear threat, the medical community should educate the public and policy makers about the threat. In the longer term, we need to be prepared to detect, diagnose, characterize epidemiologically, and respond appropriately to biological weapons use and the threat of new and re-emerging infections. On the immediate horizon, we cannot delay the development and implementation of strategic plans for coping with civilian boiterrorism.

What are Biological Weapons?

Biological weapons are complex systems that disseminate diseasecausing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals or plants. They generally consist of two parts – a weaponized agent and a delivery mechanism.

Almost any disease-causing organism (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, prions or rickettsiae) or toxin (poisons derived from animals, plants or microorganisms, or similar substances produced synthetically) can be used in biological weapons. The agents can be enhanced from their natural state to make them more suitable for mass production, storage, and dissemination as weapons. Historical biological weapons programs have included efforts to produce: aflatoxin; anthrax; botulinum toxin; foot-and-mouth disease; glanders; plague; Q fever; rice blast; ricin; Rocky Mountain spotted fever; smallpox; and tularaemia, among others.

Classification of Biological Agents

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranks the biological agents and diseases that have the potential to be used as weapons into three categories. These are:

  • Category A agents are the highest priority, and these are disease agents that pose a risk to national security because they can be transmitted from person to person and/or result in high mortality, and/or have high potential to cause social disruption. These are anthrax, botulism (via botulinum toxin, which is not passable from person to person), plague, smallpox, tularemia, and a collection of viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers, such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Machupo. These disease agents exist in nature (with the exception of smallpox, which has been eradicated in the wild), but they could be manipulated to make them more dangerous.
  • Category B agents are moderately easy to disseminate and result in low mortality. These include brucellosis, glanders, Q fever, ricin toxin, typhus fever, and other agents.
  • Category C agents include emerging disease agents that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future, such as Nipah virus.

Targets of Bioterrorism

Bioterrorism have devastating effect on the environment. Most of the bioweapons are relatively easy to generate, inexpensive and capable of mass destruction while using small quantities by simple means. Potential targets for bioweapons are water supplies and water distribution systems as it is the critical need of every ecosystem health and also to the smooth functioning of a commercial and economy sector of our industrialized society. Agriculture is another perfect target for bioterrorism which uses highly contagious, virulent and resistant agents that result in economic hardship on countries. In addition, animals, plants and birds could also be targeted for biological threat generation.

According to World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), 80% of pathogens used for biowarfare are of animal origin and 60% of human pathogens are zoonotic. Furthermore, there are many animal foreign agents (foot and mouth disease virus, Bacillus anthracis and African swine fever virus) that are readily available in the nature and also from commercial sources, which require little effort in handling and dsipersing ht ese pathogens.

Challenges from Non-State Actor

There is plenty of consensus that the use of biological weapons by nonstate actors remains a tangible reality. Non-state actors have not hesitated to employ weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) when they were able to access such weapons and criminal elements are more than willing to assist terror organizations in attaining materials. Consider two examples, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has used chemical weapons multiple times from available Syrian stockpiles or manufactured their own crude versions on the battlefields of Syria. And several criminals in Moldova were arrested when they attempted to sell radioactive material to what they thought was a terrorist group.

In addition to these incidents there are plenty of terrorism experts who conclude that sufficient evidence exists to believe that terrorist are pursuing WMD capabilities. Terrorist organizations from IS to Al-Qaeda continue to actively seek WMD capabilities, including biological weapons.

Effective Control Measures

Public health is an important pillar for any national security framework and therefore an effective response is required against bioterrorism. This can be achieved through multimodal and multiagency approach and many of these approaches are relatively straightforward. Effective control measures against bioterrorism include:

  • Biosecurity: Biosecurity is the method to protect and control the unauthorized access, loss, theft, intentional release thereby risk of transmission of infectious diseases in crops and livestock, quarantined pests, invasive alien species and living modified organisms.
  • Vigilance tools: Various past outbreaks have led to the understanding that a regional and even global response is needed. The early recognition of a bioterror agent is essential in ensuring effective containment and reduction o facsualties.
  • Research programs: Developing medical tools to counter bioweapons threats requires thorough knowledge of these microbes and the human immune system's response to them.
  • Planning for risk management: Planning is outlining necessary actions, identifying resources, assigning roles and responsibilities, and ensuring overall coordination which is crucial for combating bioterrorism.

Biological Weapons Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a legally binding treaty that outlaws biological arms. After being discussed and negotiated in the United Nations' disarmament forum starting in 1969, the BWC opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975. It currently has 183 states-parties, including 109 signatory states. Ten states have neither signed nor ratified the BWC (Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Namibia, South Sudan and Tuvalu). The BWC bans:

  • The development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of:
  1. Biological agents and toxins of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;
  2. Weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
  • The transfer of or assistance with acquiring the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles described above.

The convention further requires states-parties to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes the "agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery" described above within nine months of the convention's entry into force. The BWC does not ban the use of biological and toxin weapons but reaffirms the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits such use. It also does not ban biodefense programs.

Bioterrorism and India

Few episodes in the past have heightened the threat of bioweapons in India such as the Scrub typhus outbreak in Assam and West Bengal of India during the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965. The outbreaks of pneumonic plague in Surat (Gujarat) and Bubonic plague in Beed (Gujarat) in 1994 resulted in mass casualties and increased attention to defense and intelligence outfits of India. In 2018, Nipah Virus outbreak in Kerala has the physical attributes to serve as a potential agent of bioterrorism. Further, India also appears ill-equipped to face the threat of bioterrorism, as was evident from the H1N1 epidemic, which claimed over 2,300 lives in past years.

To keep India battle ready to counter a bioterrorism attack, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has proposed a model instrument where participation of both government and private sectors is a sine qua non to defeat any such attack. In India, several nodal ministries have been earmarked for dealing with epidemics caused by bioterrorism. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is a specialised force constituted under MHA to deal with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks. It consists of 12 battalions, three each from the BSF and CRPF and two each from CISF, ITBP and SSB.

Defense Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) is the India’s primary biodefense laboratory of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). It is mainly involved in the development of defense against malicious biological, chemical as well as toxicological materials.

India signed the BTWC with some reservations on January 15, 1973 and ratified the treaty a year and a half later on July 15, 1974. It was one of the few countries to have expressed its reservations, which included:

The government of India would like to reiterate in particular its understanding that the objective of the Convention is to eliminate biological and toxin weapons, thereby excluding completely the possibility of their use.

The exemption in regard to biological agents or toxins, which would be permitted for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes would not, in any way, create a loophole in regard to the production or retention of biological and t oxin weapons.

Any assistance which might be furnished under the terms of the Convention would be of medical or humanitarian nature and in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.

The ‘Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment, and Technologies’ (SCOMET) guidelines of India provide stringent export product control list that include goods, technologies and services related to dual- use items.

India has also revised ‘International Health Regulations’ (IHR) that came into force in June 2007 which account for rapid detection and countermeasures of health emergencies.


Over the years, the weapons have been shifted from swords to malevolent biological weapons. Although, very few pathogens can be used as bioweapon, their considerable ease of production along with the immense mass casualty and civil disruption made them effective arms. Since bioterrorism attacks are unpredictable, early detection, containment, treatment and communication are crucial for appropriate response against it. New programs and systems should be designed to insure our national security. In addition, to limit the access to biological materials, laboratory biosecurity and regulations should be created and updated according to the risk assessment by the policymakers. There is heightened and urgent need of increased collaborations among the academic sector, government private industry and nations which will provide benefits far beyond protection from deliberate acts of bioterrorism.

General Studies Paper- III

  • Topic: Disaster and disaster management.
  • Topic: Role of external state and nonstate actors in creating challenges to internal security.

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