Biological weapons make faint scratches on the minds of the strategic elites in India. Why? Lack of media interest? Witness the acre inches devoted to the Indo-US nuclear deal and the Civil Liability Bill, but hardly any reference to biological weapons. Tragically, nuclear weapons have been used. Fortunately, no mass scale biological weapons attack has occurred to rivet public attention on them. Further, the threat of nuclear proliferation and the need to control the spread of nuclear energy have got associated in the public debate. But the link between combating biological weapons and combating infectious diseases has not yet been established.
The lack of media interest explains why the international meeting of public health and law enforcement officials held recently in Geneva to discuss improved capabilities for responding to an attack with biological weapons and outbreaks of infectious diseases remained unnoticed. It addressed the need for increasing national preparedness to combat infectious diseases caused by either natural occurrences or man-made reasons. Thereby, the meeting addressed both the peaceful and military aspects of biological agents and toxins, and the related public health issues, along with response measures needed to deal with a biological weapons attack. Incidentally, the meeting in Geneva is an ‘intersessional process’ conceived under the rubric of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits efforts “to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain” biological agents and toxins for military purposes. The BWC envisages a Review Conference (RevCon) being held in Geneva every five years “to review the operation of the Conference.” In addition, the UN has been holding two meetings every year since 2007 —the first in summer to hear presentations by experts on a previously chosen problem, and the second in winter to suggest policy responses on the conclusions reached by the experts. Their recommendations are passed on to the States Parties for their further consideration. The next BWC RevCon will be held in 2011, where all these issues will be discussed.
Bio-technology, like any other high technology, is inherently dual-use. It can be used in pharmaceuticals and agriculture, but also for malicious purposes. A chasm obtains between the basic approaches of the United States and the developed nations to this dual use problem. The United States emphasizes security concerns with the dissemination of bio-technology like the suspicion that Syria, Iran and North Korea are developing biological weapons secretly. But developing countries, which include India and China, desire untrammelled access to bio-technology for developmental purposes which is promised under the BWC. This dichotomy in basic approaches is worth stressing. No country is an island in regard to public health. However effective their detection, surveillance and response capabilities might be, all countries must depend on their neighbours to arrest the spread of infectious diseases that can easily spread beyond national borders with infected travellers carrying the germs, bacteria or virus. International cooperation, therefore, is of critical importance. Memories still linger about the Asian flu epidemic that led to millions of deaths in the 1910s and 1920s. A similar influenza epidemic, either natural or man-made is a nightmare for public health officials, underlining the need for international cooperation to deal with infectious diseases.
In truth, countering the threat of infectious disease is a political and a public health issue. It would be suicidal for national governments to do too little or be parsimonious in taking adequate measures to combat infectious disease. But, it would waste public funds to overstock preventive vaccines and curative drugs for a likely contingency, since all these medicines have a discrete expiry date. Handling public perceptions is also of critical importance to ensure that suitable ameliorative steps are taken to handle foreseeable situations, but also to ensure that citizens do not panic out of irrational fears. As a long term measure, establishing surveillance means to detect and report the occurrence of infectious diseases is of vital importance, which suggests that pathological laboratories across the country need being established and strengthened. Since laboratories and hospitals in the private sector provide some 70% of the public health capacity in India, they must also be brought into this surveillance and reporting network. The need for training doctors and nurses to detect infectious diseases like smallpox, that have become rare, is urgent. There are basic governance issues involved here, implying that the entire public health administration needs gearing up. No amount of funding alone will help increase capacity. The flip answer that the developed world should contribute more to the public health programs in the developing countries is really no answer.
Hopefully, the BWC RevCon in 2011 will address these fundamental issues relating to public health, and not fritter away its energies pitting national security considerations against the dissemination of biotechnology imperatives.