The jury is still out on whether the modern plague that is Covid-19 was man-made or occurred naturally.
The smart money, however, seems to be on that it leaked, by accident or deliberately, from a lab in Wuhan in China and into the local wet market.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford and Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.
Stuart Crawford was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is the former CO of the CBRN Regt, Bio
Security Fellow at Magdalene College Cambridge and author of the book ‘Chemical Warrior’.
This article is the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
From there, as we all know, it spread around the globe and has presented itself in various mutations and derivatives. Its impact has been pretty devastating with some 290 million cases and 5 ½ million deaths worldwide (as of 2nd January 2022), figures which are probably an underestimate. Most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that the world seems to have been taken completely by surprise.
Whilst the health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are pretty clear and resonate of the much more destructive Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 (an estimated 50-100 million deaths worldwide) which killed more people than did the Great War, the defence and security implications have either been deliberately downplayed or possibly not yet fully assessed.
In health terms, here in the UK the government(s) and the NHS were caught on the hop and have been playing catch-up ever since. New mutations and variants have added further to the chaos and quite clearly we’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long chalk. While we are now desperately trying to mitigate the effects of the recent onslaughts, the big question is; how do we get better early warning of the next pandemic, for as sure as eggs is eggs there will be more in the future?
What has been severely lacking hitherto is effective ‘actionable’ intelligence to allow the government to make effective and timely decisions. Relying on mass testing produces a dated picture of the passage of the virus and hence decision-makers can only make reactive decisions. The panacea would be an early warning system that would allow preventative measures to be put in place before an epidemic becomes a pandemic. With the advance in DNA sequencing, we can now produce an almost real-time ‘weather’ map of the progress of the virus. This technology, allied to the latest detectors and networked to current security surveillance systems, would provide just such a system and is being developed in the UK, but will require significant funds to become an active reality. But a lot less than has been wasted on some pretty dubious preventative measures and PPE.
Less well explored are the military and security implications. It will not have escaped the attention of state actors just how much Covid-19 has disrupted everyday life in almost every country in the world. Biological warfare, of course, is hardly anything new, and those of us – the authors included – who went to the First Gulf War, for example, were inoculated against bubonic plague and anthrax amongst other threats, such was the alarm over Saddam’s SCUD missile threat and the warheads the missiles might carry.
Up till now, biological weapons have been dismissed by state and non-state actors as being ineffective. Too slow to make an impact and covered by medical countermeasures, lip service has been paid since the end of the Cold War to biological defence capability. Al Qaeda and ISIS have dabbled with highly toxic pathogens like anthrax and plague with little success. But Covid, a not very virulent pathogen but highly transmissible, has changed all that. There is some evidence that Russia and China have had another look at biological weapons and without doubt, bad actors around the globe will be doing similar. Had Covid been a terror event it would have dwarfed anything in the past and would possibly have been a bigger global shock than WW2?
There may be, however, a much more sinister threat looming. We have become, sadly, all too familiar with the terrorist threat in the UK, whether it be spill-over from the Northern Ireland Troubles of late last century or the latest waves of jihadist-inspired violence. Outrages like the 7/7 London bombings or the Manchester Arena attack show all too clearly that the threat is real, and the security services’ efforts, whilst impressive, cannot prevent every incident.
Whilst the bomb, and the suicide bomber, seems to be the weapon of mass destruction of choice for those who seek to do us harm for political and/or ideological ends, it will not have passed their notice that the widespread distribution of an infectious virus or disease can be a powerful weapon. Arguably it would be a much more dangerous threat than a bomb.
Are terrorists able to manufacture a biological weapon of this type and distribute it through a population? Could we see the advent of the “suicide infector” in addition to, or indeed supplanting, the suicide bombers with whom we are all too familiar? It seems that, given the means and the intent, a handful of infected individuals could spread themselves, and the disease they might be carrying, rapidly through the population before anyone had an inkling of their presence. Wholesale death, illness and disruption to everyday life could ensue.
Do we have any defence against this threat? There are two key measures that will greatly reduce the biological terror threat. Firstly, there needs to be effective regulation and policing of the 3000+ labs around the globe that deal with pathogens and procurement of the aforementioned early warning system. There is the UN’s Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention but most pay lip service to it and it is too poorly funded to be effective. Revamping this Convention, getting support, especially from Russia and China, would be a great start. No doubt most militaries including the UK need a comprehensive stocktake of their defensive biological capabilities. If you have no morals or scruples such weapons are almost perfect, and most of our state and non-state adversaries have no clearly apparent morals or scruples.
Against this background, time is not on our side. We are not being sensationalist in saying that, despite the lessons of Covid, the UK remains wide open to another wave of new variants or viruses against which we have no effective early warning system.
Worse still, should any terror group get it hands on a biological weapon and decide to spread it amongst our population in pursuit of their evil ends, we currently have no effective defence.
Covid-19 has been our wake up call. There is no time to lose.
© Stuart Crawford and Hamish de Bretton-Gordon 2022