Global Response to COVID-19 Reveals Systemic Vulnerabilities in Countering Bioterrorism Threats of the Future

 

 “The Coronavirus Seems Unstoppable” by Science Magazine  licensed under Getty Images

 

 

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread globally at an alarming rate, and the lack of unity amongst the global community is proving to dramatically accelerate its rate of transmission. At this point in time, bioterrorism has been absolved from consideration as the culprit for the COVID-19 pandemic, while the struggle to contain this virus continues to exploit the fragility of the global community by their disjointed response efforts. Despite being deemed naturally occurring, this pandemic possesses other key components that a successful bioterrorism attack would employ, including: widespread casualties, long incubation periods, civil unrest, economic and societal disruption, mass panic, and disease.[1] COVID-19 has spread quickly and vastly, and it poses a serious threat to mankind, and more specifically; to the global economy.[2] For these reasons, this pandemic also greatly threatens the national security of all states that are afflicted; this global medical emergency could result in a cataclysm of political and economic cooperation at the international level.[3]

 

In order to set pace for increased political and economic stability during this disaster, G20 leaders must be clear and concise in communicating their cooperation efforts to defeat this pandemic, they must also vehemently support the initiatives of the World Health Organization during this time. [4] Government’s of the world must communicate with complete transparency when discussing disease progression and the threat that COVID-19 poses to the world. They must also be willing to work with International Financial Institutions in effort to protect small businesses, and the poor and vulnerable.[5] The uncertainty that arises from new virus strains sparks chaos before it can be determined whether it is a bioweapon or not. For this reason, an extensive contingency plan for epidemics and pandemics must be in place, as bioterrorism is often not realized until weeks after the incubation period of the host has commenced.[6] Until world leaders are capable of making a coordinated effort to contain pandemics that are naturally occurring, they will lack the capacity to respond to a premeditated biological attack by violent non-state actors that was intentionally designed to wreak havoc and spread disease.  

The realization that disease could be weaponized came around 600 BC, when animal carcasses, contagions, and human cadavers were utilized in effort to pollute an enemies water supply.[7] The Middle Ages revealed an onslaught in the weaponization of infectious disease, often by catapulting contagious cadavers at the intended target.[8] This tactic was exemplified during the Siege of Caffa, in 1346, when the Tartar’s launched the deceased, Black Death tainted, bodies of their soldiers into the city. This tactic ultimately exacerbated the outbreak of plague in Europe; which eventually became the most disastrous public health crisis in recorded history.[9] Despite a lack of technology, The Siege of Caffa is a reminder that disease can quickly proliferate when its infectious properties are exploited, therefore even less prosperous non-state actors can employ this method of spreading contagion. Various other instances throughout history employ the use of disease as effective weaponry, such as, in 1495, Spain spiked the wine of their French enemies with Leprosy tainted blood amidst battle in Southern Italy.[10] Napoleon Bonaparte was also accustomed to this tactic, as he ordered his forces to flood the marshes of Mantua, Italy, in effort to increase the mosquito population and intensify the outbreak of Malaria during the Siege of Mantua in 1797.[11] Biological warfare became more technical as microbiology continued to advance, allowing for new breakthroughs during the 19th and 20th centuries. During World War II, Japan found an effective way to introduce fleas to plague infected rats, ultimately serving as their hosts.[12] These fleas were then released airborne, atop Chinese cities, such as Ningbo, but Japan’s lack of preparation backfired, and their own soldiers became afflicted with plague, as well.[13] Biological weapons pose such an enormous threat to humanity due to being cloaked in invisibility and possessing extensive incubation periods; creating the perfect concoction for inciting confusion upon the population. This uncertainty ultimately breeds fear and panic; which are contagions of another variety, that cling to human nature in times of chaos.[14] Each of these examples of the weaponization of disease reveals how incredibly difficult it is to discern between a pandemic of organic nature, and a pandemic spawned by biological warfare; this is a conundrum for the public health sector of the past and present.[15] 

 

Malicious intent is clearly absent when organically evolving pandemics erupt; in contrast, pandemics arising from bioterrorism strive to enhance social and economic disruption, send governments into disarray, and damage the effectiveness of the military.[16] The public is prone to further panic, especially once confirmed cases are made public, and they are exposed to images on the news of doctors and first responders decked out in extensive hazmat garb.[17] Bioterrorism of the past often utilized strains of bacteria and viruses that have since become treatable by antibiotics or vaccination, such as in the case of smallpox, anthrax, plague, and botulism.[18] This is why early detection remains at the forefront of defense against bioterrorism; since many symptoms are nonspecific and commonplace in emergency rooms worldwide, proper identification allows for appropriate treatment and enhanced awareness of a potential attack.[19] Moving forward, however, some scientific breakthroughs that were created for the betterment of society, may prove detrimental if their capabilities ever land in the wrong hands. Gene editing has been perfected in effort to mend genetic defects and cure disease, by altering the sequences of DNA and modifying the functionality of genes.[20] This gene editing technology is called CRISPR and could someday become vulnerable to malicious actors.[21] This same technology that was created with philanthropic intention, could one day be used to concoct diseases that are resistant to vaccinations or antibiotics.[22] Gene editing technology is even capable of altering the genetic makeup of insects, which could result in pesticide resistance, further amplifying the spread of disease.[23] While these threats are of little concern at the present time, it is essential to consider future possibilities in order to plan for mitigating the fear that will surface if it ever comes to fruition.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm, and the international community scuffles to respond effectively enough to reduce the number of confirmed cases, while searching for a way to end this pandemic once and for all. As of now, schools have shut down across the globe, politicians from various nations (Spain, Canada, and Brazil) have either been exposed or tested positive to the virus, professional sports have postponed their seasons, travel bans have been enforced, lockdowns have ensued, and economies have plummeted.[24] Each state that is afflicted faces the fear of uncertainty; though, instead of working together to find a solution, the international community has remained disjointed. The economic impact of this pandemic will be felt well into the future for all involved. United States stocks faced their worst losses since 1987 when Black Monday occurred, European markets are facing unprecedented losses, The U.S. Federal Reserve has supplemented the lending market with $2 Trillion, and that was still not enough to stabilize Wall Street. [25] Dow Jones, Financial Times Stock Exchange, and NIKKEI all suffered great losses in the stock market, and growth is predicted to become stagnant.[26] In the United States, alone, Disneyland, Disneyworld, movie theaters, Broadway, restaurants and bars, and other nonessential businesses have closed in the wake of COVID-19. [27] All of these aforementioned activities serve to stimulate the economy, and they are currently out of business; forcing many of their employees into unemployment for the foreseeable future.[28] The unknowns about health, wealth, and overall well-being have resulted in global panic. [29] 

 

Such responses, however, were not universally accepted, as some nations have proven to be far more equipped at handling this pandemic before their confirmed cases overwhelmed their healthcare facilities. Given the outbreak of SARS in 2003, some Asian states had established central command centers for epidemics of the future; Taiwan, in particular, has 124 action items in place for their mandatory procedures to enforce in event of an outbreak. [30] South Korea and Japan, in contrast, did not have such procedures in place, and they have suffered grave consequences.[31] Leading the world with their effective response to this pandemic are Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. They each faced the onslaught of their outbreak during the Lunar New Year, which could have resulted in soaring Case Fatality Rates (CFR’s) had they not acted diligently.[32] Instead, they each enacted travel restrictions on all passengers arriving from China, prior to the World Health Organization's recommendation to halt travel.[33] As a result, Hong Kong and Singapore currently have fewer than 200 confirmed cases.[34] Singapore established diagnostic tests early on, they sent large quantities to all of their major hospitals, and tested all patients presenting with flu-like symptoms or pneumonia; by doing so they were able to detect three times more cases of COVID-19 than the global average.[35] They also instituted disease surveillance and contact tracing, sometimes requiring patient interviews, tracking down contacts, and even notifying everyone on the flight manifest of an infected patient that they needed to be tested.[36] Singapore’s Prime Minister made a public announcement that was broadcast in three different languages, in effort to inform the public of the nature of this threat, and assure the population that the government, public health sector, and medical community were taking all measures necessary to contain it. Thereafter, there was a significant change in the demeanor of the public; supermarket shelves were no longer empty and mass panic had lifted.[37] Singapore’s efforts revealed that transparent communication by the government, comprehensive diagnostic testing, and swift quarantine timing are vital to containing this virus.[38] These measures should be used in response to any pandemic, whether naturally occurring, or from bioterrorism.

 

While Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong proved to have effective strategies in place, the responses of many other countries' were nothing short of lackadaisical. Denial was the preemptive response for many states, including Iran, Italy, and the United States.[39] Italy and Iran were both lethargic in their effort to begin diagnostic testing, they were both slow in advising against public gatherings, and they both suffered gravely from the consequences when their healthcare facilities became overwhelmed by confirmed cases.[40]The United States, of a similar mindset to Iran and Italy, responded worse than almost anywhere else on Earth. The public health sector has referred to this response as: nothing short of a fiasco of mindblowing proportions.[41] The Center for Disease Control utilized defective tests for the first few weeks of the outbreak, in an attempt to monitor overseas travelers returning to the United States.[42] However, without accurate testing in place during those weeks, it became impossible to determine who was infected and needed to be isolated; which in turn resulted in the shutdown of schools, restaurants, bars, and events to prevent further spread of the virus.[43] The United States still lacks the quantity of tests needed to identify the hotzones, and to determine how extensively this virus has spread within its borders. This is, in part, due to a shortage of the chemical (known as a Reagent) needed to isolate the RNA of the virus in each test. [44] While pharmaceutical companies are working diligently to create enough reagents necessary for the test kits, the demand is still overwhelming the supply; despite their best efforts.

   

The United Kingdom has brought to light an entirely different plan of attack for COVID-19, which has also resulted in the harsh criticism of Boris Johnson during the past week. The UK initially felt that the virus should run its course, citing herd immunity as a prospective scientific concept that could ultimately help defeat COVID-19.[45] There are essentially three ways to combat a viral pandemic: by restricting movement and aggressively testing for it, through vaccination (which has yet to be developed for COVID-19,) and by allowing the virus to run its course.[46] The third option corresponds with herd immunity, whereas a virus will infect a portion of the population, allowing the survivors to then develop immunities to the virus, eventually creating an environment where there are less infected people to transmit the virus into susceptible hosts.[47] The main argument against herd immunity remains that the population must be slowly infected so that healthcare facilities are not overwhelmed with new cases each day.[48] COVID-19 is too aggressive to rely upon herd immunity, without running the risk of overwhelming healthcare facilities and causing too many deaths in the process. The United Kingdom has since changed its tune, and decided that self-isolation and avoiding large gatherings are essential to defeating this virus. However, with the prospect of 60% of the globe being infected by COVID-19 within the first year of its presence, developing immunities to this virus may be a realistic, long-term solution for reducing susceptibility within the population.[49]

 

Until COVID-19 emerged, no pandemic had ever occurred amid the extensive information-sharing infrastructure that exists today. In this technical era, it is important for governments to raise awareness of potential disinformation campaigns by their adversaries (including state and non-state actors) during times of crisis. The efforts to sow distrust within the population were already at an all-time high before COVID-19 entered the scene, and now such efforts are gaining increased momentum by the day. China is relentlessly blaming the United States for this outbreak. Furthermore, China is deflecting its own responsibility for this crisis, as they are strategically deploying doctors to assist in the European battle against COVID-19 in an effort to restore their reputation.[50] An internal memo from the European Union has stated that they have detected an extensive Russian campaign to fan the flames of distrust within the West about the derivatives of COVID-19.[51] Such disinformation is being spread by Russian State Media and Pro-Kremlin sources, in effort to convince the public that COVID-19 is, in fact, a bioweapon that has been man-made by the governments of Western Democracies.[52] For this very reason, government transparency proves incredibly essential in properly responding to pandemics and epidemics. It is quite simple for adversaries to flip the script of a pandemic and propagate lies. The end goal for this behavior is to further destabilize societies from within, exacerbate pre-existing panic, further exploit vulnerabilities, and enhance existing divisions within the population.[53] The 2014 annexation of Crimea revealed that Vladimir Putin strategizes much like Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who embraced the fog of war, and sought to spread dubious information in effort to reduce their enemy’s ability to effectively respond amidst the chaos. These campaigns are meant to exacerbate confusion and reinforce fear; the exact societal response that governments want to avoid during times of pandemic, whether it is generated from bioterrorism or not.

   

Disinformation campaigns are not the only detriment to society occurring as modernity advances. With increased technical capabilities comes the increased desire to attack such infrastructure. The fear and panic caused by COVID-19 has only gained momentum as malware and phishing scams have preyed on the populous. Further, healthcare facilities, such as Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic, have been hacked and resulted in surgical postponements. [54] Furthermore, with a radical influx of employees working from home, comes increased vulnerability from utilizing less secured home computers and networks.[55] Some applications have been hacked, exemplified by an Android app that sought to track the spread of COVID-19, though it was ultimately tainted with spyware that monitored the activity of mobile users in Libya.[56] It has become increasingly apparent that COVID-19 has already defeated the pandemic contingency plans of organizations across the globe.[57]

   

When considering the most effective tactic for countering bioterrorism threats of the future, it all comes down to being properly prepared. Preemptive measures must be taken to properly educate and train healthcare providers, since early detection is imperative.[58] Primary prevention of bioterrorism starts with creating global norms that abhor the weaponization of disease.[59] However, since violent non-state actors will not hesitate to fracture customary norms, the secondary level of prevention embraces the importance of early detection, prompt treatment, and complete transparency by the government and public health sector.[60] The best example of properly handling an outbreak can be found in Singapore’s response to COVID-19. Singapore’s government, public health sector, and medical community urgently responded to the threat with aggressive testing, disease surveillance, and contact tracing. Government transparency was also at the forefront of Singapore’s strategy to tackle this outbreak; they restored faith in the population and avoided politicization of this global disaster, and by doing so, they avoided mass panic. Populations become fearful enough when pandemics are organic in nature; but the potential for crippling chaos becomes increasingly probable when ‘bioterrorism’ is added to the narrative as the culprit. Therefore, the response must be done quickly, rigorous testing and strict quarantine guidelines must be in place, social distancing must occur, and effective communication for the duration is vital.[61] Further, the international community must work together and adhere to the protocol put in place by the World Health Organization. As always, cyberintelligence and cybersecurity professionals must be vigilant, as cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns will inevitably proliferate. COVID-19 should be viewed as a learning experience for implementing procedures to successfully deter future threats, as malicious non-state actors are becoming increasingly aware, by the day, of the systemic vulnerabilities that exist within the international system. If these lessons are not learned in this present moment, inaction could ensure that history repeats itself in the future.

   

The Counterterrorism Group remains vigilant in its efforts to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism around the world. CTG will continue to monitor the effects of COVID-19 in the coming weeks, as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns are increasing by the day. CTG will keep its clients up to date on threats that could potentially affect their interests. If there are any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact The Counterterrorism Group.

 

[1]“How Prepared Are We for Possible Bioterrorist Attacks: An Approach from Emergency Medicine Perspective.” Scientific World Journal, 2018. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2018/7849863/

[2] “Coronavirus: Global Response Urgently Needed.” Chatham House, March 2020 https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/coronavirus-global-response-urgently-needed.

[3]Ibid

[4]Ibid

[5]Ibid

[6]“Bioterrorism: Still a Threat to the United States.” Combating Terrorism Center 5 (1), 2012.
https://www.ctc.usma.edu/bioterrorism-still-a-threat-to-the-united-states/

[7]“Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 17 (4), 2004: 400–406.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08998280.2004.11928002

[8] Ibid

[9]Ibid

[10]Ibid

[11]“Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 17 (4), 2004: 400–406.
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08998280.2004.11928002

[12]Ibid

[13]Ibid

[14]“Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 17 (4), 2004: 400–406.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08998280.2004.11928002

[15]Ibid

[16]Ibid

[17]Ibid

[18]“How Prepared Are We for Possible Bioterrorist Attacks: An Approach from Emergency Medicine Perspective.” Scientific World Journal, 2018.

https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2018/7849863/

[19]Ibid

[20] “Bioterrorism: Should We Be Worried?” Medical News Today, February 2018.

 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321030.

[21]Ibid

[22]Ibid

[23]Ibid

[24]“Impact of Pandemic Stretches from Schools to World’s Leaders.” AP News, March 2020.

. https://apnews.com/a123df57403757910e63ca01fde2f322.

[25]“Impact of Pandemic Stretches from Schools to World’s Leaders.” AP News, March 2020. https://apnews.com/a123df57403757910e63ca01fde2f322.

[26] “Coronavirus: A Visual Guide to the Economic Impact.” BBC, March 2020.
https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51706225.

[27]“Impact of Pandemic Stretches from Schools to World’s Leaders.” AP News, March 2020.

https://apnews.com/a123df57403757910e63ca01fde2f322.

[28]Ibid

[29]Ibid

[30]“What We Can Learn From Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong About Handling Coronavirus.” Time, March 2020. https://time.com/5802293/coronavirus-covid19-singapore-hong-kong-taiwan/.

[31]Ibid

[32]Ibid

[33]Ibid

[34]“Singapore Wins Praise For Its COVID-19 Strategy. The U.S. Does Not.” NPR, March 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/12/814522489/singapore-wins-praise-for-its-covid-19-strategy-the-u-s-does-not.

[35]“What We Can Learn From Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong About Handling Coronavirus.” Time, March 2020. https://time.com/5802293/coronavirus-covid19-singapore-hong-kong-taiwan/.

[36]Ibid

[37]Ibid

[38]Ibid

[39]“Singapore Wins Praise For Its COVID-19 Strategy. The U.S. Does Not.” NPR, March 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/12/814522489/singapore-wins-praise-for-its-covid-19-strategy-the-u-s-does-not.

[40]“Singapore Wins Praise For Its COVID-19 Strategy. The U.S. Does Not.” NPR, March 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/12/814522489/singapore-wins-praise-for-its-covid-19-strategy-the-u-s-does-not.

[41]Ibid

[42]Singapore Wins Praise For Its COVID-19 Strategy. The U.S. Does Not.” NPR, March 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/12/814522489/singapore-wins-praise-for-its-covid-19-strategy-the-u-s-does-not.

[43]Ibid

[44]“Shortage of Crucial Chemicals Creates New Obstacle to U.S. Coronavirus Testing.” Stat News, March 2020. https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/10/shortage-crucial-chemicals-us-coronavirus-testing/.

[45]“What Is Herd Immunity and Can It Stop the Coronavirus?” MIT Technology Review, March 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/615375/what-is-herd-immunity-and-can-it-stop-the-coronavirus/.

[46]Ibid

[47]Ibid

[48]Ibid

[49]Ibid

[50]“China Is Winning the Coronavirus Propaganda War.” Politico, March 2020.

 https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-china-winning-propaganda-war/.

[51]“Russia Aims to Stir Distrust in Europe on Virus Disinformation.” Bloomberg, March 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-19/russia-aims-to-stir-distrust-in-europe-on-virus-disinformation.

[52]Ibid

[53]“Russia Aims to Stir Distrust in Europe on Virus Disinformation.” Bloomberg, March 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-19/russia-aims-to-stir-distrust-in-europe-on-virus-disinformation.

[54]“Coronavirus Sets the Stage for Hacking Mayhem.” Wired, March 2020.

 https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-cyberattacks-ransomware-phishing/.

[55]Ibid

[56]Ibid

[57]Ibid

[58]“How Prepared Are We for Possible Bioterrorist Attacks: An Approach from Emergency Medicine Perspective.” Scientific World Journal, 2018.

https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2018/7849863/

[59]“Biological Warfare and Bioterrorism: A Historical Review.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 17 (4), 2004: 400–406.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08998280.2004.11928002

[60]Ibid

[61]“What We Can Learn From Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong About Handling Coronavirus.” Time, March 2020. https://time.com/5802293/coronavirus-covid19-singapore-hong-kong-taiwan/.

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