Takshashila Discussion Document: Assessing Measures for India to Tackle Biowarfare Threats

By Shambhavi Naik

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Gene editing, synthetic biology, and improved delivery systems have reinvigorated the attention to biological weapons. Furthermore, the Biological Weapons Convention has repeatedly failed to agree to a verification mechanism, giving rise to suspicions that state actors may still be experimenting with biological weapons. Further, non-state actors have also dabbled with biological weapons, with isolated reports of incidences in recent decades.

This discussion document assesses three major impacts of new technologies on biological weapons. Firstly, increased access to scientific methods, resources and reduced barriers to scientific expertise has led to the proliferation of bioweapons to non-state actors. Secondly, advanced knowledge of biology and programmable-delivery weapons has converted biological weapons from a weapon of mass destruction to a covert targeted weapon of tactical importance. Finally, in light of these developments, existing preventive measures have become inadequate to curb the threat of biological warfare.

This discussion document recommends:

  1. Key measures – such as improved surveillance mechanisms, education and inculcation of industry biosafety standards – need to be adopted to protect Indian citizens, flora and fauna and the economy from potential external and internal attacks.
  2. India must stay prepared for a potential biological attack given our geopolitical situation and vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks. A robust healthcare programme, improved diagnostics and quick responses to outbreaks is required for India to build effective bio-defence capabilities.
  3. Collaborations with international partners for sharing resources/expertise to create an effective programme will help India fend off disease outbreaks – both natural or of man-made origin.
  4. Finally, India needs to take a lead at the Biological Weapons Convention to ensure stricter action against non-compliant countries and create a mechanism for mandatory reporting of activities related to technology with dual purposes.

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