Covid-19: How Super-Powers Have Used ‘Bio-Weapons’ In The Past With China Being The Worst-Affected Nation

As the controversy surrounding the origin of the Covid-19 virus rages on, history shows how great powers have used “biological weapons” against their adversaries in the past.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top disease expert in the US, has come under increasing attacks for his “flip-flops” on Covid-19 guidance. Initially, he seemed to favor the Chinese version that the virus was natural but now he says that “it is essential as a scientist that you evolve your opinion and your recommendations based on the data as it evolves”.

With his links with the Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, and his non-committal stand now on whether the virus is natural or man-made, apprehensions that the Covide-19 virus was meant to be a bio-weapon that got released accidentally have become stronger.

However, since China is not going to heed all international efforts or requests to come clean on the issue, the truth is unlikely to come in years to come.

Infectious Diseases Vs Bio-Weapons

As it is, there is an invisible line between infectious diseases and bio-weapons. Experts say that it is often very difficult for historians and microbiologists to differentiate natural epidemics from alleged biological attacks, “because: (i) little information is available for times before the advent of modern microbiology; (ii) truth may be manipulated for political reasons, especially for a hot topic such as a biological attack; and (iii) the passage of time may also have distorted the reality of the past”.

Of course, infectious diseases are natural phenomena whereas bio-weapons are deliberately designed. But their impacts are the same.

There have been historical episodes of victims of infectious diseases becoming weapons themselves. In 1346, the attacking Tartar forces (ethnic group living mainly in Tatarstan and the wider Volga-Ural region) experienced an epidemic of plague, but they converted their misfortune into an opportunity by hurling the cadavers of their deceased into the city of Genoa (then an independent Republic on the north-western Italian coast), thus initiating a plague epidemic in the city. The outbreak of plague forced a retreat of the Genoese forces.

Bio-weapons have been used throughout the ages as far as one can remember. It is recorded that bio-war had already started 14 centuries before Christ when the Hittites sent infected rams to their enemies.

And, during the past century, of more than 500 million people who died of infectious diseases, several tens of thousands of these deaths were due to the deliberate release of pathogens or toxins.

Three aspects make biological weapons different from other weapons. First, these are extremely economical to manufacture, and hence can be easily employed by not only weaker nations but also non-state actors like terrorists.

Secondly, these are very difficult to be detected because the virus requires an incubation period before its effects can be seen on the victims. In fact, the incubation factor works to the advantage of the aggressor not being concealed; there are overwhelming chances of their impact or spread being considered as a natural outbreak.

Thirdly, biological weapons are highly infectious and can affect as much the affecting forces as those attacked. It has proven very difficult to create agents or bio-weapons which can discriminate between a friend and a foe, because their effects tend to persist longer than the operational conditions that justified their use, and they tend to spread beyond what the attacker has envisaged.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. (via Twitter)

Of course, the attacker can use them if it is 100 percent certain that its political and economic system or the system of crisis-management is stronger and more capable than that of the attacked in weathering the pandemic.

However, given unpredictability in how resilient political systems will prove to resist an attack, launching a general pandemic in the hopes of suffering relatively less than a foe is incredibly risky.

How Japan Used Bio-Weapons

As a matter of fact, all the industrial powers have resorted to the use of biological weapons. The worst culprit in this regard has been Japan, the country that used these weapons intensely against China during the inter-war years.

It is said that the father of the Japanese biological weapons program was the radical nationalist Shiro Ishii who thought that such weapons would constitute formidable tools to further Japan’s imperialistic plans.

He later became head of Japan’s bio-weapon program during World War II, employing more than 5,000 people, and killing as many as 600 prisoners a year in human experiments in just one of its 26 centers.

The Japanese army poisoned more than 1,000 water wells in Chinese villages to study cholera and typhus outbreaks. Japanese planes dropped plague-infested fleas over Chinese cities or distributed them by means of saboteurs in rice fields and along roads. Some of the epidemics they caused persisted for years and continued to kill more than 30,000 people in 1947, long after the Japanese had surrendered.

Cold War Rivalry

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States both established significant biological weapons programs, often building upon the work of their defeated foes. Both developed aerosol sprays capable of delivering bacterial and viral agents by plane or ballistic missile.

Both sides also stockpiled plenty of anthrax. In both countries, accidents and tests inflicted casualties on their civilian populations, although general outbreaks were prevented.

In fact, in cities like San Francisco and New York that were the testing grounds for these weapons, particularly for the study of the spread of the pathogen in a big city, resulted in a large number of infections. It caused such uproar that President Richard Nixon issued an executive order in 1969, unconditionally ending America’s bio-weapons programs.


As regards the then Soviet Union, in 1979, 100 people and countless livestock died following the accidental release of anthrax spores from a bio-weapons plant in the city of Sverdlovsk — one of 40 such facilities that operated in the former Soviet Union.

Non-state actors and terrorists have also used bio-weapons in recent times. There is the notorious example of the 1995 sarin gas attack inside the Tokyo subway by the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo.

The widely publicized assault, which killed 13 people and hospitalized thousands, had been preceded by a series of failed botulism and anthrax assaults near the Imperial Palace, a Tokyo airport, and two US military bases.

The Anthrax Scare

And then there was the case of the “anthrax letters” in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack of September 9, 2001, in New York. Several letters were sent during the autumn to government officials or journalists. Overall, 22 people were infected with anthrax, and five of them died from anthrax or complications resulting from it. This bio-terrorist attack might not have killed many, but it had a huge impact at a psychological and political level.

Opening Anthrax-Laced Letter
A lab technician holding the anthrax-laced letter addressed to a US senator after safely opening it at the US Army’s Fort Detrick research laboratory, in November 2001. (Image: FBI)

Of course, recognizing the dangers of the bio-weapons, there have been international efforts to deal with them. There were two international declarations — in 1874 in Brussels and in 1899 in The Hague that prohibited the use of “poisoned weapons”.

However, although these, as well as later treaties, were all made in good faith, they contained no means of control, and so failed to prevent interested parties from developing and using biological weapons.

Reining In Bio-Terror

In 1925, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was ratified, prohibiting the use of biological weapons, but not their research and production.

Thus, States that had ratified the Geneva Protocol, such as France, the UK, Italy, Canada, Belgium, Poland, and the Soviet Union, began research on biological weapons; so did the US, which did not ratify the Geneva Protocol until 1975.

The last major attempt in regulating biological weapons prohibition of biological weapons resulted in the conclusion in 1972 of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC or BWC) that entered into force in 1975 after 22 governments ratified it.

The BWC currently has 182 States as parties and five signatory states. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.

The Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling, and acquisition of biological agents or toxins of any type or quantity that do not have protective, medical, or other peaceful purposes, or any weapons or means of delivery for such agents or toxins.

Under the treaty, all such materials are to be destroyed within nine months of the Treaty’s entry into force.

However, like the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the BWC does not provide firm guidelines for inspections and control of disarmament and adherence to the protocol.

There are unresolved controversies about the definition of “defensive research” and the quantities of pathogens necessary for benevolent or peaceful research.

As a result, what is to be banned and what is to be exempted in the name of scientific and technological advances continue to remain ambiguous.

Secondly, there are no guidelines on enforcement and how to deal with violations. Alleged violations of the BWC are to be reported to the UN Security Council, which may in turn initiate inspections of accused parties, as well as modalities of correction.

The right of permanent members of the Security Council to veto proposed inspections, however, undermines this provision.

With the objective of strengthening the BWC many “review conferences” have been held since 1981. The last and 8th Review Conference of the BWC was held in November 2016. But the results have not been very helpful.

And in the absence of a consensus on the scope and enforcement among major member countries, it is doubtful that the next Review Conference, scheduled for this year, will be of much help either.


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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: