13 April 2020

The bat and the pangolin, the most terrible biological weapons

Ştefan Oprea

Without trying to reach the grey zones of the origins of this last devastating virus, it was confirmed that its most likely origin is the bat, and the pangolins (the most trafficked animal on earth) would be the key element between the coronavirus, bats and people. The consequences of COVID-19’s outbreak are huge: tens of thousands of people who lost their lives, hundreds of thousands who were infected, the global blockage of activities, the state of emergency in most of the affected countries, the limitation of people’s rights, borders’ closure, restriction for people and goods’ mobility, the critical decrease of air traffic etc.

Image source: ProfiMedia

Although between the covers of almost each national security strategy there are more or less detailed scenarios on the threat of an epidemic or a pandemic, and the national and international management of crisis organizations, NGOs and others, try to plan and develop exercises related to that, we are now the witnessing the magnitude the coronavirus pandemic hit the world with and how it affected the human kind. All the exercises, the equipment, reports on the prognosis, condition or the phenomenon and the learned lessons collections proved to be ineffective and insufficient against this threat. Except for some states, which lived the direct confrontation with the SARS epidemic, the other countries could not handle the COVID-19 pandemic, at least not in their first phase fight with the new coronavirus.

The national and community resilience is falling apart under the political speeches’ rhetoric, the lack of readiness for urgent situations, the lack of practical coverage of intervention plans and the inability of national economies to adapt to the current situation.

Even if the path towards resilience starts and gets consolidated long before the emergence of a danger, regardless of its origins, the nowadays’ reality shows that experts’ warnings on the possibility of a pandemic’s emergence were neglected, if not ignored, by the policy makers. Consequently, the entire world pays the price of excessive bureaucracy, the disaster’s denial, the lack of equipment for this pandemic but also of resources for danger’s combat. The quick and uncertain development of the pandemic asks for the continuous and rigorous planning, the constant adjustment of the course of action and the permanent reanalysis of resources.

This crisis asks for extraordinary measures. Leaders must be ready and willing to make an effort and resources are essential for processes’ continuation. As for the necessary resources for such conditions, we should not forget that, for the past years, the discussions and analyses on bigger stocks of equipment, materials, medicines and other elements which could support the extended functioning period without replenishment were often seen as uneconomic or even useful. The public health systems, following the global modern “on time” delivery methods, were deeply affected by the situation wherein the crisis turned from local to global. With minimum available stocks at the beginning of the crisis, the pandemic proved the contrary. This time, quantity turned into quality.

As the purpose of this article is not analyzing crisis’s effects and governments capacity to act in such conditions, I think that the success of the fight with the unexpected “enemy” and the control over the pandemic depend on governments’, people, the community and the entire society’s behavior. With functional civil and military institutions, with economic entities adapted to this huge logistics’ requirements and a medical personnel able to show force, resources, innovation and resilience the situation will, in the end, came back to normal.

But if the leaders and those responsible with the management of crisis will not learn how to handle such difficulties locally, nationally or at the community’s level, they will not be able to come up with excuses when other similar scenarios will emerge.

The coincidence, but also the official information we have so far, turned this pandemic into the result of the human-to-animal transfer (zoonomy), as its emergence depends on the spontaneous genetic mutations and on circumstantial factors. The probability of future pandemics’ emergence will not depend anymore only on the “chance” to unfortunately meet difference species of animals, but also on science people’s projection, even deliberately, of some dangerous pathogens.

Extraordinarily valuable, discoveries made in the biotechnology and human science fields have and will have a huge value for human kinds’ life and health. Even if their applicability is mostly civilian, the military field is also interested in using medical therapeutic progresses on the battlefield, to cure wounds and develop vaccines. Treating the war wounds, preventing and diagnosing diseases and the protection against biochemical toxic agents are included in the positive effects brought by the use of modern biotechnology.

Still, the use of aggressive biotechnology to create biological weapons may lead to much bigger damages comparing to the mentioned benefits, even if in war terms these could be more “human”, less lethal than the conventional ones or calmer by their ulterior post-war reconstruction capacity.

Although biological technologies and researches made life proliferate, there are moments when researchers, in order to uplift their career, get financial earnings or due to curiosity, may assume big and maybe unjustified risks to promote a virus culture, losing their prudence in the detriment of their adventurous intellectual spirit. The quick access to researchers’ studies can also stimulate the negative actors, which could create microbes able to provoke diseases strategically adapted to take down the current medical security measures. Therefore, while the synthetic biological progresses will ease the technological innovation and therapeutics in combating pandemic, once this type of knowledge will get in the state or non-state revisionist or anarchical actors’ hands, they could develop more and more harmful pathogen agents for more and more destructive applications. Furthermore, bioterrorism is a threat that multiplies the risk factors and even if terrorist do not have, now, the theoretical and practical information to create biological weapons, it will not take long until biological terrorism will be another vector of the national security threat.

The pandemic is here and affects us all. The conditions for this pandemic to re-emerge are various. The efforts to limit its consequences can hardly be speculated now. Time will prove how the effects of this major crisis situation will be managed. Indeed, everyone – leaders, politicians, science experts, common individuals and even all-knowing people, the fault-finding ones – will come to realize that the “life is better than the movie” and the interventions to combat the effects of such situations will pale in the face of years of studies, and everything will have a new beginning.

Without calling on apocalyptic scenarios, life after this pandemic will stop will not be the same. Starting from taking care of our hygiene more, social distancing, the fear of not going out in public spaces, up to a possible global economic crisis, deeper than we can imagine today.

At the same time, we will have the chance of making fundamental changes.

We could imagine alternatives for neoliberal capitalism, and if the world we lived in, unstoppable until the pandemic’s emergence, has cancelled most of the activities, it will, most likely, give us the chance to analyze what should we give up and what should be developing or reinventing in the “normal” future. States will interfere in the social and economic policies as we have never experienced before within liberal democracies. Leaders will have the chance to put people first, in a stable economy with responsible companies, concerned with their employees and balanced business policies and less with incomes.

We should not miss the chance to create an economic future focused on people, in a long-lasting social responsibility framework. The success of the change will be dictated by governments and communities’ behavior. It is the time to prove that resilience is not an abstract concept and that together we can do more than could do on our own… people, social groups, states or communities.

English version by Andreea Soare