APRIL 8, 2020
The United Nations Security Council has not been able to schedule face-to-face emergency summits because physically convening all UN-recognized countries to discuss realistic strategies for quarantining citizens creates problems, especially in New York City, and at international ports of entry. Flickr photograph by Michelle Lee
The internet is awash in conspiracy theories that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak was due to an accidental or deliberate escape from a Chinese facility engaged in covert weapons development.
A March 17 Nature Medicine article considered the possibility that the outbreak resulted from an inadvertent lab release of a virus under study but concluded “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
The Washington Post has debunked a claim that the outbreak can be tied to deliberate bioweapons activity, with help from Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, a biosecurity expert.
Yet it was reported March 30 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that Ebright thinks that it is possible the COVID-19 pandemic started as an accidental release—not a deliberate release—from a laboratory such as one of the two in Wuhan that are known to have been studying bat coronaviruses.
All such claims and suspicions are so far reliant on hearsay.
Credible media sources are careful not to propagate widespread claims by the Chinese, including from trolls, that the virus actually originated in the United States.
But we should begin to call into question the effectiveness of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. Our goal should be not to erode its moral authority—to the detriment of all nations—but to strengthen it in the aftermath of this pandemic.
The convention, commonly referred to as the BWC, established confidence-building measures (CBMs) in 1986 that aimed to “prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts, and suspicions, and in order to improve international co-operation in the field of peaceful biological activities.”
The BWC includes the obligation to “exchange …. information on all outbreaks of infection diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins that seem to deviate from the normal pattern of development.”
Back in the 1980s, the release of an aerosol of anthrax spores from a Soviet military microbiology facility led to the formal adoption of this CBM by the United Nations.
The problem is that few states have submitted annual reports to the UN, and when they have, their information is often too sketchy and incomplete to be useful to determine compliance to the BWC.
Now that much more attention will have to be paid to global patterns of disease—driven largely by concerns about the coronavirus—we will need to revolutionize the flow of information by reducing non-co-operation. We need to reduce delays in information sharing from years, months, and weeks, to days and hours.
We need to act fast to provide many more direct channels for information sharing across international borders from all types of medical, veterinary, and agricultural professionals.
The United Nations Security Council and the World Health Organization (WHO) have not been able to schedule face-to-face emergency summits because physically convening all UN-recognized countries to discuss realistic strategies for quarantining citizens creates problems, especially in New York City, and at international ports of entry.
But the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, has suggested nations act fast to consult using virtual meetings.
Last week, for instance, the UN delayed the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that was planned to start in late April until sometime before April 2021.
In the future, we will need quicker international agreement on more international benchmarks for appropriate self-quarantine measures, and stricter guidelines and strategies that cruise ships should implement when travelling throughout ports in Asia and Oceania.
Unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China was under no obligation under international law to update the number of patients affected by the COVID-19 in a more open and transparent way. Global miscommunication means we have lost valuable time to take stronger steps to prevent international travellers from re-entering their own countries without voluntarily self-quarantining.
The WHO will need to provide more specific guidelines and requirements on protective equipment that should be worn, and minimum international standards that factories must meet when producing medically approved face masks and hazmat suits for health-care workers and the general public.
The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Co-ordination (UNDAC) team did travel immediately to Wuhan and other areas of Hubei Province, with the permission of Chinese governmental authorities; but in future crises, no such national permission should be needed before taking swift action.
If a country is too poor to prevent the spread of an outbreak, we need a Global Emergency Response Fund at the UN or NATO headquarters that can help pay.
Authorities must be prevented, globally, from censoring content and from refusing to share information on social media platforms, like Facebook and WeChat.
In the future, many different scenarios for accidental or deliberate biological weapons use may be imagined. Military scenarios often envisage the dissemination of substantial quantities of anti-human agents, like a new form of anthrax, in aerosol form.
In the case of the coronavirus, the pandemic spread from a point source that was likely due to a natural disease, not an accidental release, and certainly not a terrorist attack with biological weapons. But in future, covert attacks may employ natural processes, like sneezing and coughing, to spread disease from the point of attack.
We will need more mechanisms that distinguish natural and unnatural outbreaks from one another.
Rogue leaders will also need to be strongly prevented from concealing the use of biological weapons. We need to deter them by using today’s crisis to strengthen tomorrow’s international norms and agreements.
Important conferences that focus on controlling weapons of mass destruction are being delayed; meanwhile we need to plan for the future by demanding more effective global governance and international co-operation. World leaders and civil society representatives should use their cell phones and email to speedily communicate with each other.
Erika Simpson is an associate professor of international politics at Western University, president of the Canadian Peace Research Association, author of NATO and the Bomb, and peer reviewer for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health College of Peer Reviewer. This is her viewpoint and not that of the CIMVHR.