Why India Needs a Comprehensive Biosecurity Framework
This article focuses on how biowarfare and bio-terrorism are becoming plausible non-traditional threats that could immobilize a country. Being proactive in biosecurity will be a momentous step for India in its quest to becoming a formidable global superpower.
By Arpit Chaturvedi
India is vulnerable to bio-attacks. Let's face it: if an adversary state or a nonstate terrorist actor were to target India through bio attacks, it will be ill-prepared with a litany of ministries such as Defence, Home Affairs, Health and Family Welfare, Agriculture, Urban Development, Rural Development, and even Railways, scrambling to find the direction and coordination needed to respond effectively.
In addition to space and cyber warfare, biowarfare and bio-terrorism are becoming plausible non-traditional threats that could immobilize a country. Unlike the National Biodefense Strategy (2018) of the United States, the Biosafety Strategy 2018 of the UK, the Federal Law of Biological Safety 2020 of Russia, and the Biosecurity Law 2019 of China, India does not have a biodefense and safety protocol. We have a plethora of laws indeed, such as the Livestock Importation Act 2001, Plant Quarantine Regulatory Act, Customs Act 1962, WMD & their delivery systems Act 2005, Water & Air (Prevention and control of pollution) Acts, National Security Act 1980, Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, and Agricultural Biosecurity Authority of India Bill, Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism and Disasters) Bill 2017, Disaster Management Act 2005 and the much discussed the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, etc. but India does not have a clear strategy with a "whole of government approach" that can tie together various ministries in a cohesive protocol to deal with bio-attacks.
The peculiar challenge with bio-attacks is that they may come with plausible deniability from the perpetrator and late detection along with exponential growth. Regarding the issue of plausible deniability, there have already been concerns regarding the possibility of the COVID virus being a lab leak from a Level-4 virology institute in Wuhan, which according to a US Department of State Fact Sheet has a history of security protocol infractions. "Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one" the 2021 factsheet claimed.
One pressing challenge is that the easy access and cheap availability of genome editing technology such as CRISPR can pose threats to societies equivalent to the destructive potential of nuclear threats. According to experts such as Margaret E. Kosal, "in the twenty-first century, biological weapons can be (but are not always) cheaper, easier to produce, more widely available, within the capabilities of an increasingly large number of people with access to minimal technical skills and equipment, and more concealable dual-use technologies". Simple measures such as increasing border control mechanisms to prevent pests and agricultural products of foreign origin in India will still be inadequate measures because genome editing does not even need anything to be transported into a country. According to Kosal, "Due to gene sequence data (i.e., code) and synthesis capabilities, samples may never be transported. There may not be "bugs" to lock up, even if it were possible (it's not)."
We already have the near example of a Chinese scientist who shocked the global scientific community by creating "gene-edited babies" through CRISPR technology. Even though He Jiankui was editing the gene to give the babies permanent protection against HIV, he did not follow due scientific ethical guidelines of making his research plans and modalities public in advance. The reason why following the scientific ethical guidelines of making such experiments public in advance is so important is that most bio-warfare technologies have dual-use purposes and an undeclared gene editing for a noble cause today could lead to an undeclared gene editing experiment to create potentially dangerous mutations in human beings, leading to the creation of armies of sci-fi versions of mutants or a whole spate of severely deficient generations. With the Chinese culture of secrecy and laxity in ethical protocols, Jiankui got a three million Yuan fine and a three-year term in jail – for an experiment that could have catastrophic consequences for the world. Now imagine such scientists did not work at the behest of a state but belonged to a terrorist outfit and you have a sci-fi scenario coming to life. The fact is that a single rogue scientist or even an amateur can possibly unleash massive destructive forces through widely available genome editing technology that could potentially wipe out an entire nation's agricultural crops, species of livestock, or cause largescale human fatalities.
India needs a comprehensive bio-security framework that includes legal provisions that assign clear responsibilities to the Central and State Governments along with their ministries and departments, standard operating procedures (SOPs), along with preventive and countermeasure capacity systems for early detection, prevention, immunization, and management at scale. A nation like India, with its vast potential of becoming a global superpower, runs the risk of being brought to a standstill by a single rogue actor without even a single bullet fired.
There are a few places to use an overused expression and this is one of those places – 'On war footing' (yes, I said it) –India needs to set up a National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Centre such as the NBACC 'on war footing'. Further, the country needs to rapidly develop a bio-surveillance infrastructure. Finally, it needs mass casualty care and vaccine development as well as distribution capabilities. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic triggered an urgency to create effective distribution networks for vaccines and other medical support systems balanced across rural and urban areas, India still has a long road to cover in terms of developing resilience in these areas. Being proactive in biosecurity will be a momentous step for our country in India's quest to become a formidable global superpower. With India playing a greater role in defining the digits of world politics, India's security would mean nearly a fifth of the global population's security and would bode well for a more stable world order.
Disclaimer: This paper is the author's individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organization's viewpoint.