The global struggle to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global societies to natural and manmade biological threats, prompting experts to warn of a potential increase in the use of biological weapons, like viruses or bacteria, in a post-coronavirus world.
The Council of Europe’s Committee on Counter-Terrorism (CDCT) was among the first to warn that the global coronavirus outbreak could increase the use of biological weapons by terrorists.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable modern society is to viral infections and their potential for disruption,” the body said in a statement in late May. adding that the deliberate use of disease-causing agents as an act of terrorism “could prove to be extremely effective.”
As damage to humans and economies could be significantly higher than that of a “traditional” terrorist attack, the body urged its 47 member states to do training exercises and prepare to tackle a potential biological weapons attack.
But it added that it currently has no concrete evidence “of a heightened risk of bioterrorist attack due to the pandemic”.
“All countries are vulnerable to bioterrorism, its damage is rapid and potentially global,” a CoE spokesman told EURACTIV when asked about lessons learned from the current crisis.
However, according to a new report authored by Pool Re, a UK government-backed terrorism insurance company, and Cranfield University’s Professor Andrew Silke, the COVID-19 pandemic is already having a significant impact on terrorism around the world.
“One genuine concern is that COVID-19 may lead to a resurgence in interest among terrorists for using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons,” Silke said in a statement.
According to him, a range of terrorist movements have been interested in bioterrorism but there have been very few successful terrorist attacks using biological weapons.
The report said the huge impact of COVID-19 “may re-ignite some interest in biological weapons” as “the pandemic has left government and security resources being severely stretched”.
“As a result, the ability of government, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to focus on traditional priorities such as counter-terrorism has been undermined,” the report concluded.
Need for more coordination
“We recognise that there is a growing concern in many sectors about a possible increase in threats of this kind,” Mike Catchpole, chief scientist at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), told EURACTIV.
Since its creation in 2005, one of the body’s purposes has been to assess the danger of deliberate release of biological agents.
Catchpole told EURACTIV such dangers “require a coherent community response“ but stressed that “deliberate release events are unlikely to be of the same scale in terms of geographical impact as we are seeing with the current pandemic of a new respiratory virus”.
Asked about lessons learned from the current pandemic, Catchpole said that “the experience with COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of preparedness plans, particularly thinking about scenarios that might develop and what kinds of capacities will be needed.”
According to Catchpole, health authorities will need to be better prepared, not just for the next pandemic, but also against bioterrorism and other public health threats.
“This really requires early alerting – sometimes those alerts don’t turn into major threats – but an important principle of preparedness is early alerting on what could be potential threats, not waiting until it’s clearly a known threat that could overwhelm the system,” he said.
One of the areas would be the availability of intensive care units and of appropriate protective personal protective equipment.
“The other thing is just the need to continue to strengthen the operational and strategic collaboration between the health sector, public health, clinical sector and other sectors, particularly in security and law enforcement,” he added.
NATO’s threat preparedness
In an earlier stage of the pandemic, as Europe was grappling to find a response to the pandemic, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov criticised Europe’s lack of preparedness against biological threats.
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, 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 NATO countries have made 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.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]