– The world’s major military powers exercise their dominance largely because of their massive weapons arsenals, including sophisticated fighter planes, drones, ballistic missiles, warships, battle tanks, heavy artillery—and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
But the sudden surge in the coronavirus pandemic last week, particularly in the US and Europe, has resurrected the lingering question that cries out for an answer: Will overwhelming fire power and WMDs become obsolete if biological weapons, currently banned by a UN convention, are used in wars in a distant future?
According to the latest figures from Cable News Network (CNN), the grim statistics of the coronavirus pandemic include 56.4 million infections and 1.5 million deaths worldwide.
As of last week, the US alone has been setting records: more than 11.5 million pandemic cases and over 250,500 deaths since last March, with more than 193,000 infections every day.
The New York Times quoted unnamed experts as predicting that the US will soon be reporting over 2,000 deaths a day and that 100,000 to 200,000 more Americans could die in the coming months. One forecast predicted a US death toll of 471,000 by next March—in the continued absence of an effective vaccine.
The pandemic has also destabilized the global economy with world poverty and hunger skyrocketing to new highs. And all this, without a single shot being fired in an eight-month long war against a spreading virus.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Full Professor with the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS the world faces multiple crises “with the potential to devastate our communities, including the threat of climate change and the risk of nuclear war”
And UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, she said, has warned of another potential crisis, which is that terrorists could use biological weapons to produce disastrous results. He pointed out that this sort of weapon use could be even more harmful than COVID-19.
“If a terrorist group were able to carry out the complex tasks of creating and using biological weapons, an intentional release of a biological weapon could be even more deadly than COVID-19,” said Dr Goldring, who is also Visiting Professor of the Practice in Duke University’s Washington DC program and represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
She said Guterres makes the important point that “we need to focus immediately on preventing this type of development. We also need to vastly increase the capacity of our communities to respond to infectious diseases.”
“Countries with large military forces often threaten to use those forces to achieve foreign policy and other goals. One question is whether the use of biological weapons could in effect make these conventional and nuclear forces obsolete?”, she asked.
“I’d argue that nuclear weapons are already obsolete and counterproductive. By continuing to develop and deploy these weapons, States increase the risk of nuclear theft and give other countries incentives to develop nuclear weapons in response,” Dr Goldring declared.
Providing a grim economic scenario of the devastation caused by the pandemic, Guterres warned last month of the possibility of an even worse disaster: the risks of bioterrorist attacks deploying deadly germs.
He said it has already shown some of the ways in which preparedness might fall short, “if a disease were to be deliberately manipulated to be more virulent, or intentionally released in multiple places at once”.
“So, as we consider how to improve our response to future disease threats, we should also devote serious attention to preventing the deliberate use of diseases as weapons,” he declared, speaking at a Security Council meeting on the maintenance of international peace and security— and the implications of COVID-19
Meanwhile, if terrorist groups, as Guterres fears, acquire the knowledge to use biological weapons, suicide bombers and AK-47 assault rifles used in random killings, may also become obsolete in future attacks.
Professor Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, told IPS “It is not the terrorist groups that are the problem here”.
“It is the terrorist governments like the USA, China, Russia, UK, Israel etc. that have the most advanced biological warfare facilities and biological weapons in the world that threaten the very existence of all humanity as Covid-19 is now doing,” said Professor Boyle who has advised numerous international bodies in the areas of human rights, war crimes, genocide, nuclear policy, and bio-warfare.
Dr Filippa Lentzos, Associate Senior Researcher, Armament and Disarmament Programme, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS: “I don’t believe bioweapons will become the wave of the future”.
“Many might well pivot away from bombs, guns and other explosive weapons — we’re already seeing hybrid warfare and greater reliance on cyber, disinformation, etc — but adoption will be uneven across the globe”.
She said: “I suspect there would also be differences in uptake between state and non-state actors. The way I view potential future biological weapons is as an extreme niche form of weaponry, only potentially ‘suitable’ under very limited circumstances.”
Asked about the use of biological weapons as part of germ warfare during World War I, she said, in an interview with IPS last March, there was some covert use by Germany during World War I to infect horses with biological agents to block their use by Allied military forces.
“In World War II, there were substantial covert attacks on China by Japan, as well as some clandestine use in Europe against Germany. There has been very limited known use since 1945”, said Dr Lentzos, who is also an Associate Editor of the journal BioSocieties, and the NGO Coordinator for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
According to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction, was opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entered into force on 26 March 1975.
Guterres said last week he could have never imagined that hunger would rise again during his time in office as Secretary-General.
And according to the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP), 130 million more people risk being pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of the year.
“This is totally unacceptable,” said Guterres. The COVID-19 recovery must address inequalities and fragilities, and the question of food will be central to a sustainable and inclusive recovery
Meanwhile, David Beasley, WFP executive director, said the socio-economic impact of the pandemic is more devastating than the disease itself.
He pointed out that many people in low- and middle-income countries, who a few months ago were poor but just about getting by, now find their livelihoods have been destroyed.
Remittances sent from workers abroad to their families at home have also dried up, causing immense hardship. As a result, hunger rates are sky-rocketing around the world, he said.
Thalif Deen, is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group, US. He is also co-author of “How to Survive a Nuclear Disaster” (New Century).