India’s Bioterrorism Preparedness

Bioterrorism is Intentional & deliberate release of biological agents (bacteria, viruses, or toxins) to cause mass illness or death of people, animals, or plants. It is said that if the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century will be the century of biology. Thus, Bioterrorism is posed to be the next possible threat the civilized world faces. The first disease used as a tool for bioterrorism was Bubonic Plague in 14th century. It was used to infiltrate enemy cities. This coupled with less advanced medical technologies cause the bubonic plague quickly move across all of Europe, destroying a large portion of its population. Anthrax was used during First World War by Germany to infect the mules and horses of enemies. In September and October 2001, several cases of anthrax broke out in the United States in the 2001 anthrax attacks, caused deliberately. Letters laced with infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the U.S Congress. The letters killed 5. Bioterrorism is different from various other forms of terrorism because of the following:

  • Biological agents are
    • relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain
    • can be easily disseminated
    • can cause widespread fear and panic beyond the actual physical damage they can cause.
  • Risk of massive destruction in the form of life is too high
  • Exposure to minute quantities of a biological agent may go unnoticed, yet ultimately be the cause of disease and death.
  • They don’t work immediately. The incubation period of a microbial agent can be days or weeks; unlike a bombing, knifing, or chemical dispersion, a bioterrorism attack might not be recognized until long after the agent’s release.
  • However, it is quite difficult to keep bio-weapons as military asset because there are certain important limitations. One is that bio weapons cannot differentiate between foes and friends. So far, Biological weapons have been used to create mass panic only.

Different kinds of Bioterrorism agents

There are basically 3 types of agents used based on the ability and extent of damage that can be caused. They are:

  • Category A: High-priority agents which result in high mortality rates and have potential for a mass impact. The intensity and speed of impact can trigger panic in local populations.
  • Category B: Moderate-priority agents cause relatively less damage
  • Category C: Low-priority agents are emerging pathogens that are readily available and can thus be easily mutated or engineered to get desired results in a short span of time.

Examples of the above three categories are shown below:

More details about the above agents can be found here on Wikipedia. Apart from the above, the latest entrants on the scene are the designer substances such as designer viruses, which are used to target specific organs which can possibly incapacitate or kill the host on contact.

Mode of Attack

The bioterrorist agents are highly sophisticated and thus have the ability to pass through many screen tests. They can thus be spread either by human contact, via any material like books, letters, sprays in crowded places like Cinema halls, Malls, etc., drones, robots, scud missiles etc.

Bioterrorism threat to India and our Bioterrorism Preparedness

There had been several sporadic incidents bioterrorism in past but the October 2001 use of anthrax letters in United States was one incident that killed five people and triggered a worldwide alarm. There are no confirmed incidents of bioterrorism attack in India yet, in 2001, the office of the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra had received an envelope having anthrax culture. It wakes up Indian security agencies and consequently several incidents were suspected to be acts of bioterrorism. Some of them are as follows:

  • 1994, Pneumonic plague attack in Surat
  • 1996, Dengue hemorrhagic fever attack in Delhi
  • 1999, Anthrax attack in Midnapore
  • 2001, the Mystery ‘encephalitis attack in Siliguri.

To strengthen the area of bio-defence, though United States passed the ‘Bioterrorism Act of 2002’ but in India, we still have no such dedicated law. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 makes provision of an essential element of national preparedness against bioterrorism in United States and it focuses on safety of drugs, food and water from biological agents and toxins. India’s has so far, put efforts mainly via NDMA, NDRF and DRDO. Some DRDO labs are active in this area of research and have developed protective systems and equipments for protection of Indian troops against the nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. The efforts can be enumerated as follows:

  • National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has taken several initiatives has existing battalions of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), trained to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats.
  • Installing specific surveillance systems that have the capacity to recognise patterns of non-specific threats.
  • Disease Surveillance Project (IDSP), a decentralized and state-based surveillance program, 2004 which integrates the public sector, private sector, rural and urban health system, and has incorporation of communicable and non-communicable systems (unusual clinical syndromes may be included during public health emergencies).

Issues to meet the challenge of bioterrorism

There is a need for coordinated and concerted efforts of different government agencies viz. the intelligence agency, the army, the BSF, SSB, law enforcement machinery, health departments and civil administration etc. to meet the challenge of bioterrorism. The threat of bioterrorism places a heavy demand on India’s public health system which would need to mitigate and ameliorate the consequences of a bioterrorism attack. Our country lacks an effective public health system and that is why, any event of bioterrorism can create havoc in the country.

Thus, making a strong public health system is prerequisite to effectively handle the threat. For this, the various components of the Public Health System such as surveillance, assessment, medical management, information and education, etc. needs to be made stronger. Further, there is a need to make the national stockpile of drugs readily available in case of an incidence. Some other fundamental steps needed are

  • Spread of awareness
  • Readiness with drugs and medicines
  • Readiness with decontamination procedures.