Covid-19 and bioterrorism: Are we ready to confront the threat?

Covid-19 and bioterrorism: Are we ready to confront the threat?


23 | 01 | 2024


If a terrorist group uses biological agents to attack large numbers of people, the international community's action is limited, but it has certain conventions to prevent it from happening

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Rendition of a Coronavirus model [US CDC]

After three years of its expansion, Covid-19 continues to be a serious problem in numerous countries. The fatal virus is still a central issue in many health systems around the world and has shown us how, due to the growing interdependence between states, a spark that affects one country ends up setting fire to the whole international community. During the pandemic different theories related to the origin of the new disease circulated on the internet, which led many people to believe that it was spread because of a laboratory leak. Also, in recent times there has been an increase in terrorist attacks around the world, so, is not rare to ask what could happen if a terrorist group decides to use the respiratory illness (or other diseases alike) and the state of chaos it brought with harmful purposes in mind.

Bioterrorism: The weaponization of biology for terrorist purposes

The intentional use of biological agents or toxins to cause harm or death to people, animals, or plants for criminal or political purposes is known as bioterrorism and presents a major threat to the international order and stability today. Bioterrorism works by releasing these agents into the air, water, food, or objects, so that they can come into contact with people or living beings and cause infection or poisoning. Due to the great variety of biological agents that exist, these are classified from A to C based on their potential for harm, their ease of dissemination and their availability.

The objectives of bioterrorism can be diverse, ranging from causing panic, fear, or distrust among a population, to weakening the economy, infrastructure, or security of a country. For example, anthrax (which would be located in category A as it causes a severe infection due to a bacterium) has been used multiple times for various purposes: in 1993, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted (and failed) to disperse such agent from the roof of a building in Tokyo; and, in 2001, anthrax-tainted letters were sent to various media outlets and senators in the US. In both cases, the biological agent was the same, but the objectives were different. The failed attack of 1993 was intended to cause the greatest number of deaths possible. Almost twenty years later, the attack aimed at causing panic and fear among the population.

Moreover, the consequences of bioterrorism can be devastating on a health, social, political, and environmental level. A biological attack can result in large numbers of sick and dead, as well as the need for medical, diagnostic, and therapeutic resources. Furthermore, it can generate a social crisis, with alterations in public order, mobility, commerce, and coexistence. Concerning the political environment, its consequences can be clear and direct because it can generate conflicts, tensions, or reprisals between groups leading to political destabilization. Finally, it can hurt the environment by contaminating soil, water, flora, or fauna.

Some lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic

With all this in mind, it is not surprising to consider how Covid—or other kinds of potentially arising diseases—could be used as a weapon and, for this purpose, some ideas and concepts have to be properly understood. Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new type of coronavirus that was discovered at the end of 2019 in China. Since then, it has spread around the world, causing a pandemic that has resulted in more than 5 million deaths.

The symptoms of coronavirus can be very similar to those of the common flu, which can make them indistinguishable. However, there exists a probability of suffering from a severe form of the novel virus which is related to factors such as advanced age, chronic diseases, obesity, or a weakened immune system. Additionally, is transmitted primarily by close contact with an infected person who expels respiratory droplets when coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing.

Concerning its origin, although there is a popular idea that a lab accident could be responsible for one of the major health crises of the 21st century, the cause of the outbreak is still an open question. Scientific literature produced by China insists on the natural origin of the virus, probably transmitted from animals to humans at an animal market in Wuhan. Some Western versions don't rule out an accidental leak of a virus not created with damaging purposes.

A closer look into the relationship between Covid-19 and bioterrorism

The relationship between Covid-19 and bioterrorism is complex and, at the same time, worrisome. The pandemic has demonstrated the vulnerability of society to a biological threat, as well as the difficulties in preventing, detecting, and responding to such an outbreak. In this context, it has resulted in an atmosphere of fear, fueled by misinformation and political polarization, which might be exploited by terrorist or extremist groups to spread their ideologies, recruit new followers, or perpetrate attacks. As a matter of fact, after the Covid-19 outbreak, terrorist groups could have taken advantage of the international turmoil to, for instance, strengthen their authority and influence, especially in local environments, to obtain greater economic resources from abroad, as Interpol highlighted. Therefore, Covid-19—or other diseases—do not necessarily have to be used as a biological agent directly, but terrorist groups can also take advantage of the chaotic context to improve their position and status in different ways. At the same time, however, the probability that a terrorist organization will succeed in using a biological agent in such a way that its effects are comparable to the 2020 health crisis is low.

It is important to recall that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a ‘domino effect,’ which has raised awareness of the perils of increasing interdependence between countries. As a result, such interdependence has also raised concerns regarding bioterrorism, especially because of the ease of access to pathogenic agents and prospective genetic manipulation, which means that agents can be manipulated to become more lethal or resistant to medical treatments due to scientific and biotechnological advances. Consequently, the threat of bioterrorism has increased states’ interest in raising awareness and preparedness to respond to possible biological attacks.

Enhancing preparedness and response: Are we ready for a prospective pandemic?

In light of the current unstable context, we should ask ourselves whether there is a real emergency preparedness and response for a bioterrorist attack, and how would the international community act in that kind of scenario. It is somewhat complex to generalize due to the wide variety of biological agents that can be used for such an attack. But, different international organizations, like the United Nations or the European Union, as well as various research groups have established certain guidelines and standards for states and practitioners to prevent—to the extent possible—bioterrorist attacks. Similarly, existing international conventions and agreements address issues related to bioterrorism, biosecurity, and response to biological threats. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), for instance, prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons, and the states parties hold regular meetings to discuss issues related to the implementation and enforcement of the treaty. Even though biosecurity is not specifically mentioned in the BTWC, it is generally assumed that states parties to the convention are obliged to take concrete measures to enhance biosecurity to comply with international obligations. In this sense, paragraph 9 of the BTWC Preamble indicates that states parties are “[d]etermined, for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons.”

The response to a bioterrorist attack should be a joint effort that would require rapid, coordinated, and effective action at the global level to minimize the impact and prevent the spread of the biological agent.

All in all, and according to the most recent studies, Covid-19 is most likely to have a natural origin even if hypotheses regarding laboratory leaks must not discredited at all. As for its use as a biological weapon affecting a large part of the population, it seems that this would be a very rare possibility. In any case, this crisis has managed to raise the international community's awareness of the inability to deal with global crises of this type, making it clear that, if some terrorist group wishes to use a biological agent to attack large numbers of people, the international community's action is somewhat limited, even though it has certain conventions to prevent this from happening.