Is Covid-19 a Biological Weapon?

Author: Gabrielle Udell, March 2021


Image by Pixabay

Due to the pandemic’s economic consequences, and the immense fear and instability it has caused, there is much speculation as to whether Covid-19 is and/or can be used as a biological weapon. To determine the lengths to which this is true or untrue, one should understand the comprehensive definition of biological weapons by analyzing how they’ve been used historically and evaluating whether the threats and properties of Covid-19 resemble those of biological weapons.

Covid-19 has had devastating effects. It is estimated that 199,000 people have died in the United States alone, and that the virus has caused 962,000 deaths worldwide (CDC, WHO). Societies have had to adapt to a “new normal,” as people are now working from the confinements of their homes. In many countries, containment measures have sparked an increase in unemployment, domestic abuse cases, forced displacement, and escalated violence. Further, Covid-19’s domino effect has spun the world in complete turmoil for some countries more than others. All eyes are on the United States as Covid-19 has shaken the country’s leadership, resulting in failure to contain the virus as rapidly and efficiently as other developed countries. Due to the pandemic’s economic consequences, and the immense fear and instability it has caused, there is much speculation as to whether Covid-19 is and/or can be used as a biological weapon. To determine the lengths to which this is true or untrue, one should understand the comprehensive definition of biological weapons by analyzing how they’ve been used historically and evaluating whether the threats and properties of Covid-19 resemble those of biological weapons.

The universal definition of biological weapons provided by the World Health Organization, defines them as, “Microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.” The United Nations expands on this definition to say that they often consist of two parts: a weaponized agent and a delivery mechanism (UNODA). Further, biological weapons can be used for many reasons including for military purposes, political assassinations, the contamination of agriculture and livestock to cause food scarcity and economic instability, as well as for the purpose of an epidemic that instills fear and chaos among a population (BWC). According to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), delivery mechanisms of biological weapons can take multiple configurations. Some programs have constructed bombs and missiles as means of delivery, and others are constructed to fit in aircrafts, trucks, or boats. Additional methods of installation include brushes, sprays, and injection mechanisms (MENACS).

Biological weapons are not new and have been used in countries around the world. Historians have documented the use of biological weapons as early as in the 1300s, in which the Mongol forces flung plague infested bodies over a barricade and into the Black Sea Port and trade center of Caffa (Schneider, 2004). Following the French and Indian War, during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, British troops were said to have purposely passed blankets and handkerchiefs infected with smallpox to the Indians, resulting in widespread illness and mass loss among their people (Peter d’Errico. 2001. 2010). Most notably, biological weapons were used in World War I, in which Germany established a clandestine program to infect horses and cattle owned by Allied armies, using the agent glanders, a disease easily contracted by animals, particularly horses, donkeys, and mules (Schneider, 2004), (CDC, 2017). Following these attempts, in 1915, there were allegations that the Germans attempted to infiltrate cholera in Italy and the plague in St. Petersburg in order to undermine Russian forces (Riedel, 402). In response to the detrimental impact caused by the use of biological weapons in World War I, many countries signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflict. However, during World War II, Japan violated the treaty by engaging in a large, secretive biological weapons program and using them against the Allied forces in China. The Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies followed suit soon after, and developed biological warfare production programs.

These efforts were put to rest on April 10, 1973 by the BWC which was the “first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons,” which entered into force in 1975 (UNODA). However, gaps in the convention eroded its relevance and states commitment to the treaty remains questionable. International policies surrounding biological weapons and response mechanisms are fairly recent developments, including the United States BioWatch Program managed by DHS to monitor the early warning signs of  bioterrorist attacks. While many efforts exist to stop the use and production of biological weapons, there is still speculation that China, North Korea, and Iran have biological weapons programs. There is fear that non-state actors such as terrorists have and will use biological weapons, as we have seen in the 2001 Amerithrax attack, involving the distribution of envelopes with anthrax in them. 

The RAND Corporation, an American global policy think tank states, “the key variables in determining the impact of a biological terrorist attack are the quantity of agents employed and the means of dissemination.” Due to globalization and the complex interconnectedness that drives everyday life in the modern-day world, most of the globe has experienced the effects of Covid-19. In response to American and Chinese relations, specifically regarding recent trade wars and fierce economic competition, conspiracies accusing China of developing the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a lab as an act of bioterrorism have been making rounds. However, these accusations have little evidence to back them up—only that Chinese scientists have studied a similar virus to that of SARS-CoV-2 prior to its discovery. Further, it would be necessary to question why China would want to inflict harm on its own people. That would require a rather large level of desperation. In addition, the main demographic of people the virus targets is the elderly— not the middle aged or working-class population making up the weight of a countries’ economy. It is simultaneously important to note that historically the purpose of biological weapons was never to develop pandemics, but to inflict harm on specific countries, militaries, agriculture, or on selected individuals. While Covid-19 holds some characteristics of biological weapons, such as; causing a population panic, remaining highly contagious, and infecting a large number of people, it lacks a certain level of control and intent that biological weapons acquire. Public health and biodefense expert, Mark Kortepeter, addresses the common traits and trends of biological weapons that Covid-19 does not have, including easy accessibility and manufacturing. He further notes that biological weapons have to be stable in the atmosphere to be used in battle. In the past, it was mostly understood by countries that irresponsible exposure could harm or place a military’s troop at dangerous risk. Agents that were designated to target large groups of people in the 1940s and 50s required lab testing, and predominantly consisted of the plague and smallpox, those of which drugs or vaccines could protect a favorable population or reverse the effects if an accident occurred. Moreover, the Biological Weapons Convention has created a global norm, in which “no country considers biological weapons to be a legitimate means of national defense, and no country asserts they have a right to these weapons even as a means of deterrence” (Tarini, 2016). Currently, biological weapons are timely and expensive, and it would be insensible to exert effort into a weapon that would harm its own population in the process of reaching its target. According to National Public Radio (NPR), the United States GDP has dropped 32.9%, but it has also halted the progress of China’s economy as well as that of other countries that have had to adhere to containment measures (Horsely, 2020). What has made the effects of Covid-19 substantially worse for the United States is its flaws, including a lack of efficient leadership and mistrust in the current administration that existed before Covid-19’s infiltration. This is not to say that adversaries aren’t chuckling and observing the devastating effects a virus has had on a powerful country like the United States. With that being said, it is needed now more than ever that countries prepare for how to respond efficiently and collectively to the threat of a biological attack. Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention is a great place to start.

United Nations. “Biological Weapons Convention – UNODA.” United Nations Office for 

Disarmament Affairs, 26 Mar. 1975, www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons.

“Bioterrorism | Glanders | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Oct. 2017, 

http://www.cdc.gov/glanders/bioterrorism/index.html.

Errico, Peter d’. “Amherst and Smallpox.” Nativeweb.Org, University of 

Massachusetts/Amherst, Department of Legal Studies, http://www.umass.edu/legal/derrico/amherst/lord_jeff.html. Accessed 10 Mar. 2021.

“Bioterrorism.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and 

Prevention, 20 Oct. 2017, www.cdc.gov/glanders/bioterrorism/index.html.

“Biological Weapons Convention – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations,

http://www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons/. 

“First Annual Report to The President and The Congress of the Advisory Panel To Assess 

Domestic Response Capabilities For Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Rand Corporation. RAND, 1999. 

Horsely, Scott. “3 Months Of Hell: U.S. Economy Drops 32.9% In Worst GDP Report Ever.” 

National Public Radio, NPR, 30 July 2020, choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/07/30/896714437/3-months-of-hell-u-s-economys-worst-quarter-ever

WHO. “Biological Weapons.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 

http://www.who.int/health-topics/biological-weapons#tab=tab_1. 

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