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CALL FOR GLOBAL ALERT ON BIOTERRORISM IN COVID TIMES

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UN bodies, Nato Parliamentary Assembly, and Interpol, entrusted with the task of identifying non-state actors involved in bioterrorism, are carefully monitoring the response of terrorists to the effects of the current Covid-19 pandemic amid speculations that terror groups may have notions of spreading mass terror by using biochemical weapons.

The 1540 Committee of the United Nations Security Council is the specific body that is monitoring this aspect of global terrorism. The Security Council adopted resolution 1540 (2004) under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to affirm that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery constitutes a threat to international peace and security.

The committee sounded an alert in March this year when its chair, Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez, told a UN presentation: “2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging year” due to the covid-19 pandemic. 2021 may turn out likewise, I am an optimist. Even while the global pandemic has drastically changed the world, this has not reduced the threat of non-State actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including the spread of deadly pathogens. As this scenario cannot be excluded, the international community has multilateral tools to prevent it from happening that must be used to their full potential.”

The Committee works closely with the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other relevant international organisations, including the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the Animal Health Organisation.

Ramirez said though the Committee does not have a mandate to conduct threat assessments, “we know of course that terrorists have long been interested in biological weapons….there is evidence of multiple attempts to acquire and weaponize biological agents by al-Qaeda over the years”.

The Committee has reason to believe that “more recently, there have been several cases of weaponization of ricin by individuals in the US, the UK and Germany”. It has studied in details the activities of cults across the world that believed in using biological weapons. In this context, it talks of the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyō, in 1990,” before their attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 using the chemical weapon sarin which killed 13 people and intoxicated more than 6000, attempted to weaponize and disperse botulin toxin and the bacteria that causes anthrax in a number of locations in Japan”. Aum Shinrikyō is reported to have

“also tried to weaponize the Ebola virus in 1993”.
In order to put in place appropriate measures to prevent the exploitation of biochemical weapons by non-state actors, the Committee recommended: “If States have in place measures for example to account for and secure production, use, storage or transport, and the physical protection, of pathogens and toxins,

this would undermine the possibility of non-State actors, to have access to those materials and using them illicitly, including for terrorist purposes.” Complementing efforts of the UN Committee, the Nato Parliamentary Assembly in March convened a meeting of its Science and Technology Committee on the “technological progress and the spectre of bioterrorism in the post-Covid era”. A draft report on the subject by Leona Alleslev, Canadian politician and former military officer who served as the Member of Parliament, was read out.

The report calls for using “Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (EDTs) like Artificial Intelligence (AI), biotechnology, Big Data and Advanced Analytics (BDAA)” to improve the “ability to prevent, detect, and contain biological threats, whether deliberate attacks or naturally occurring pandemics”. AI has notable application in the rapid identification of pathogens due to its ability to process large amounts of data for pattern analysis and information extraction, the report said, adding: “AI can also be used more broadly in responses to biological incidents by providing situational awareness and assisting authorities in making informed decisions in crisis situations. For example, it can be used to merge data from multiple sources order to detect, track or forecast biological incidents based on a combination of historical or real-time data.”.

It referred to researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory developing “a highly sensitive and reliable trigger used in the US military’s early warning system for biological warfare agents”. The trigger is called the “Rapid Agent Aerosol Detector (RAAD)”. It “continually monitors the air in a location and identifies aerosolised particles that may be threat agents before using embedded logic to initiate successive phases in the detection process”.

However, the report cautioned that many new technologies, including biotechnology, are dual use. “They can be used for peaceful purposes such as medicine and protection, but they can also be transformed into sophisticated weapons. Indeed, advances in biotechnological research can facilitate the manipulation of pathogens to make them more effective as targeted weapons. Through advanced DNA sequencing techniques, it is becoming easier to genetically engineer viruses and other disease-causing organisms. This can increase their virulence and transmissibility, expand their host range, or enhance their resistance to therapeutic interventions.”

These advances in technology, if they fall into the wrong hands, can wreak havoc, because they “decrease costs of synthesising biological agents that increase the risk that yet unknown biological agents might be weaponised in the future and could lead to the development of new biological warfare agents”.

The Nato Assembly’s committee felt that “advances in technology could also allow a more targeted delivery of biological weapons” even as they “can make existing biological research and technology more accessible”. The committee expressed the worry that though a certain level of expertise is still required to effectively manufacture, process and disseminate biological agents, “the ease of microbiological manipulation is increasing and rapidly becoming less costly”.

The report said of the immediate worry over biological weapons in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic: “Experts are concerned that the destructive social and economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis have drawn attention to the potentially potent impact of biological agents and may lead to a resurgence of interest in such methods among terrorists.”

The report feels that “these concerns are underpinned by reports that extremist groups have called on their followers to intentionally spread Covid-19 by coughing on targeted individuals or through other means”. It referred to conspiracy theories woven around the pandemic spreading among the terror groups: “In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, groups associated with Daesh and Al-Qaeda have also spread conspiracy theories claiming that the virus is a “soldier of Allah” that is being used to punish the enemies of Islam.” However, the report said the objective was not to spread alarm that terrorists can easily access biological weapons. “Easier access to the knowledge and technology required to manipulate biological agents does not necessarily mean that widespread proliferation of these methods among terrorist groups will occur. Barriers limiting access of non-state actors to the development and use of biological weapons, at least on a technologically advanced and/or mass destructive scale, include the required necessary expertise, access to technical equipment and funding. In practice, terrorists need to acquire or produce stable quantities of a suitably potent agent and find an effective means of delivering the agent to the target. This process remains complex and requires a high level of scientific knowledge, training, and equipment which terrorists may not have.”

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