COVID-19 pandemic raises questions on preparedness for biological threats

A mask display at the NATO Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Initiatives presentation at the Prague Congress Centre [EPA/BARBARA WALTON]

As Europe is grappling to find a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has criticised Europe’s lack of preparedness against biological threats.

Speaking at a press briefing on Saturday (28 March), Borissov criticised, amongst others, NATO for being prepared for hybrid threats or cyber-terrorism, but not enough for biological warfare – an issue he is said to have raised at the virtual EU summit held last week.

The EU leaders meeting on Thursday had laid bare the bloc’s divisions over how to minimise the economic pain and prepare for an eventual recovery, with the ailing south incensed by the richer north’s reluctance to offer more support.

“I want to ask NATO colleagues about these major contributions we pay for defence, cyber defence or drones and spend billions on armaments, do we have no NATO plans for a bacteriological war?,” Borissov said, explaining that he had asked that from EU leaders in the meeting but apparently did not receive a response.

“Well, if we were preparing for war, why aren’t we wearing protective clothing? We really can’t fight at the moment; we are actually already defeated by the virus. We really weren’t ready on this topic,” the Bulgarian PM told a briefing at the crisis staff headquarters.

Biological threat preparedness

Asked by EURACTIV what preparedness NATO has in place to counter chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, NATO officials pointed towards the 2009 strategic policy on preventing the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and CBRN threats, which was reaffirmed at the July 2018 Summit.

However, according to experts, NATO’s preparedness in the field has received less attention than other threats in the past years, although the Alliance has a CBRN Defence Battalion, which is specifically trained and equipped to deal with CBRN events and/or attacks

The body trains not only for armed conflicts but also for deployment in crisis situations such as natural disasters and industrial accidents.

Meanwhile, only a few member countries have training for such threats as a priority, either in civil defence or military settings.

At the moment, the Czech Republic has the only live-agent chemical weapons training facility in NATO.

NATO’s COVID-19 response

Since the beginning of the crisis, a key challenge in Europe has been the availability of face masks and other personal protective equipment.

Most member states do not share this information, citing national security reasons, while others simply don’t have the exact numbers due to their complex internal structures.

EURACTIV has learnt that the military of EU member states has this kind of information but it is therefore difficult to share with other countries, while NATO as an organisation does not own stocks of respirators and other medical equipment as such.

Asked by EURACTIV earlier in March whether NATO has an estimation of the stocks of masks and personal protective equipment in its member states across Europe, NATO said such stock-taking “is the responsibility of national authorities”.

However, asked what crisis response mechanisms there are currently in place, a NATO official said the Alliance is primarily working to coordinate the acquisition of protective medical equipment through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Coordination Centre (EADRCC).

The EADRC is meant to keep track of the assistance offered and accepted by members and partners.

In the past weeks, Spain, Italy and most recently Montenegro, had requested assistance through the coordination centre for medical supplies such as personal protection equipment, respirators, masks and test kits. NATO passed the request on to NATO members and partners, who can provide bilateral aid.

For now, the Czech Republic has answered the call by providing 10,000 protective medical suits to both Rome and Madrid. Additionally, NATO planes have been distributing medical equipment, most recently to Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania.

According to the NATO official, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has spoken with several foreign ministers ahead of next week’s virtual meeting to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the collective measures to respond to the crisis.

World not prepared for health hazards 

Health security experts already concluded in 2019 that most countries were ill-prepared for a catastrophic infectious disease outbreak.

The Global Health Security Index, issued in October by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and co-authored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, assessed 195 countries on their readiness to deal with the threat of an epidemic or pandemic.

According to the study, no country or health system worldwide was fully prepared for a globally catastrophic biological event of any sort.

“National health security is fundamentally weak around the world,” the report concluded. “No country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address.”

Moreover, the report notes that less than a half of the countries worldwide have submitted Confidence-Building Measures under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in the past three years, “an indication of their ability to adhere to important international norms and commitments related to biological threats”.

Among its 33 recommendations to address the gaps identified in the report, the authors included a call on the UN Secretary-General to organise a heads-of-state-level summit by 2021 on countering biological threats, a focus on financing and emergency response, and urged national governments to take more precautions to address health security risks in general

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Georgi Gotev].

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