By Vinny Davis*
With the onset of the 21st century, the concept of asymmetrical warfare has become even more pronounced. The prevalence of large, well-funded, and even state-sponsored terrorist groups throughout the world is indicative of the changing dynamics of terrorism. The trans-continental nature of the phenomenon of biological warfare, only creates more apprehensions which are not altogether unwarranted. Thus concerns over the threat of infectious disease has positioned itself at the center of a global order of post–Cold War terrors.
The world is not free from the threat of biological weapons, as the world has witnessed its progression from being a battlefield weapon to a strategic weapon with the same lethal effect as that of an atomic bomb. “Chemical and biological terrorism can be defined as the overt or covert use of chemicals, pathogens, or toxins by individuals, groups, or governments to cause harm for ideological, political, or financial gain.” A bio-terrorism attack is thus a deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other harmful germs to cause illness or death. They are characterized on the basis of their ability to disperse and resist medical treatment. Often it becomes difficult to detect them as it can spread through air, body or food. Thus there is a need to design strategies to detect and provide early warning of a covert biological attack, as its a genie that must never be let out of the bottle. Keeping this in mind, many nations have terminated their biological weapon research and production.
There were many instances globally when pandemic influenzas has manifested itself as cause of panic for humanity. It was only few years before that the world was in the grip of new pandemic- H1N1 or popularly known as swine flu. Moreover, its only when infectious diseases affect humans sporadically that the global institutions of governance attaches importance to such concerns.
Influenzas are basically of two types- seasonal and pandemic. Seasonal influenzas are seasonally occurring diseases for which vaccines are available. Thus they can be termed as less perilous ones. On the other hand, pandemic influenzas are dangerous, so much so that they recur at intervals, and has the potential to spread globally. Quiet often, those afflicted do not have immunity to such viruses, which amplify its spread and increase the fatalities.
Bio-safety vs Bio-security
Futuristic predictions can sustain only with anthropological analyses. The same is applicable in the case of threat of infectious diseases too. Upon perusing the historical contexts, one can understand that during 60’s and 70’s there were massive efforts of eradication adopted. Notably during this period the academic interest also waned down. With the use of the term “emerging infectious diseases” in 1989 by Joshua Lindberg , the threat of pandemics loomed large on the global sphere. Furthermore, it was a grim reminder to all, that the viruses are constantly evolving. The failure of the global community to combat HIV AIDS questioned the credibility of science; especially on what medicines can or cannot do.
The advances in genetic technology such as reverse genetics (efforts of reconstructing viruses) can have negative prognosis threatening the safety of humankind if fallen into wrong hands. The efforts of reconstructing the deadly virus of 1918 (used in World War I that took of the life of 20- 30 million lives) was undoubtedly biggest breakthrough in medical science. Instances of the state machinery intervening at these junctures for national interest can have its pros and cons. But the responsibility of controlling access to the samples of the reconstructed viruses is important. Though such innovations strike a chord with science-fiction movies, none would wish to live through a situation of cloned or genetically modified species (be it dinosaurs to viruses) transforming from reel life to real. Thus bio safety and bio security can be opposing themes, as the terminology of dual use from nuclear science can be applicable here as well. This is where bio-security is at stake when manoeuvred to suit vested interests. All these developments only heightened the prognosis associated with outbreaks of pandemics.
History is replete with instances of chemical and biological agents employed in war fronts. Bizarrely, of late the phenomenon of globalization in itself is a carrier of pandemics globally. Be it consequences of globalization or not, diseases can now spread rapidly across countries. The discontinuities associated with the phenomenon of globalization ought to be comprehended to deliberate upon how globalisation itself is a causal factor. Noted anthropologist, James Fergusson considers that the increased connectedness brought about by globalization can accentuate the spread and by default serve as a state of disconnection. Thus any discourse on infectious diseases is also a discourse on globalization, says Dr. Carlo Caduff of Kings College London. Though this anthropological interpretation may seem speculative, it cannot be ignored.
One must be aware that in any such analysis there is a continuation of a colonial perspective among US policy makers on outbreak of pandemics. This makes such global concerns more politicised in nature. There were many instances when politicians and scientists have blown up the information and misguided the masses. The assumptions of how pandemics are prone to develop and spread from the East (eg: SARS) and South (eg: Ebola) serve as a testimony to it. However being blindfolded to few opposing facts do not help either. In fact the case of swine flu was first reported in California. The prevalence of such neo-colonial mindsets in the knowledge realm defies the norm of objectivity with which academic circuits must enlighten the masses.
Therefore state and its protective apparatus must be realistic enough to acknowledge that their increasing surveillance on the bio scientists for security concerns should not be detrimental for scientific innovations. At the same time terrorist outfits across the world must not be given an opportunity to construe genetic technology as a lethal weapon.
*The author is Research Associate with Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. Views expressed here are personal and does not reflect or anyways represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.