Biological weapons, and security

 By Syed Arif Hussain

The Anthrax attacks on the United States in the autumn of 2001, and the fear and confusion that followed, made clear that the country lacks a comprehensive strategy for biological security; the protection of people and agriculture against disease threats, whether from biological weapons or natural outbreaks. Too often, thinking about biological security has been distorted by misplaced analogies to nuclear or chemical weapons. An effective strategy must leave these analogies largely behind and address the special challenges posed by biological threats.

A strategy for biological security must confront drug-resistant and emerging diseases more than 30 of which have entered the human population over the past quarter-century. There is no good analogue to this naturally occurring threat in the realm of nuclear or chemical weapons. Moreover, diseases may be targeted against livestock or crops as well as against human populations. And outbreaks of deadly, contagious, and long-incubating diseases such as smallpox have to be detected and stopped rapidly wherever in the world they occur. Fortunately, once formulated, a sound strategy for biological security will help sustain itself because many of its core provisions will benefit public health even apart from acts of bioterror.

In fact, many of the tools used to address natural disease threats will be needed to respond to an intentional attack. The U.S. response to the anthrax attacks has emphasized the importance of improving domestic defenses. These measures include stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics, as well as improving local and national disease surveillance and other public health tools. To be effective these domestic measures must be sustained for decades and keep pace with the biotechnology revolution. International steps such as improving surveillance for and response to outbreaks of infectious diseases and securing pathogen stocks worldwide are also crucial to an effective strategy. Yet most of these international measures have been ignored so far in the current focus on immediate domestic needs. Part of the problem is the very vocabulary we use. Analysts and policymakers refer casually to “WMD” (weapons of mass destruction) or “nbcr” (nuclear/biological/chemical/radiological) weapons, as if the latter were merely variants on the same type of device. In fact, these weapons differ greatly in their ease of production, in the challenges they pose for deterrence, and in the effectiveness of defensive measures against them. The post–September 11 focus on WMDs and whether they are in the hands of enemy states or groups risks overlooking these complexities. Put simply, biological weapons differ from nuclear or chemical weapons, and any biological security strategy should begin by paying attention to these differences.

I find myself in hot waters when I observe, read and see with scientific eye and mind that biological terrorism in every day, month, year and decade is killing ruthlessly and rampantly many innocent lives only in the name of a disease. Around 144,000 in our country are among those two million children who die of pneumonia and diarrhea every year. But, unfortunately the state, government and concerned quarters are paying no heed to curb this terrorism. If this war against the terrorism is not addressed in time it will play havoc unnoticed. If we lost this war we lost everything. Through this article I deem it necessary to attract the kind attention of the high-ups dealing at the helm of affairs to take some serious, stringent, stern and practical steps to uproot this global threat. Being the son of soil (Gilgit-Baltistan) I would be remised if I did not gather the courage to request the provincial government, especially to the august and honorable Chief Minister, to also pay his kind attention towards this menace too and formulate scientific solutions to save the lives of the innocent people of GB and to the entire county at large.

In this regard the role of Karakoram International University can be unparalleled, if it delivers to its real essence. As it is rightly and commonly believed around the world that the students and faculty members of universities are reckoned as the elite class of education and smart brains of nation. I am sanguine that Karakoram University will leave no stone unturned to help the government in this regards through research to win this war on bioterrorism by strengthening the bio security of general masses.

The writer is perusing his PhD in the discipline of Biological Sciences at the Karakuram International University, Gilgit. He can be reached at arif.bio@kiu.edu.pk. 

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