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The Rediff Interview/Dr Narendra Prakash Gupta

Dr Narendra Prakash Gupta is a microbiologist who studied bacteriology in England and was trained in typhoid research in Denmark. On his return to India, he started an enteric (relating to the intestines) laboratory in Lucknow and went on to head the National Institute of Virology in Pune.

In 1977, he became deputy director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research and was in charge of 16 institutions engaged in the research of communicable diseases. His efforts to create a defence system to face the threat of biological terror failed miserably.

Since his retirement in 1982, Dr Gupta has been engaged in writing articles. He told Sheela Bhatt that India is unprepared to face the challenge of biological terrorism. Excerpts:

Can you give us the background of bio-terrorism?

Bio-terrorism means the use of biological weapons to terrorise an enemy country. In mediŠval times the term was used when plague-infected bodies of Tartar soldiers were thrown in the besieged cities of Europe. Its worst example was when some church leaders who were fighting the Red Indians in America took blankets from smallpox-infected dead bodies in Europe and distributed them as charity in America. The blankets were soaked with smallpox puss and entire tribes were wiped out. This is recorded in history, which is less than 400 years old. As we know, gases were used in the First World War as a weapon. But biological weapons were not used at that time because bacteriology was just a ten-year-old invention then.

By the 1930s ideas such as the use of germs to deliberately cause diseases had started coming. Because a biological war cannot be waged between two armies, it has to be between one army and a civilian population. The concept of total war came with mass bombing in the Second World War.

When were bio-weapons used for the first time?

The Japanese were the first to use it in the 1930s against China. They used germs like typhoid, cholera and some powerful poison-producing bugs. They contaminated food and water supply. Special shells were produced, with splinters coated with such bugs. The shells were fired at the Chinese and Mongolian prisoners of war.

When the Japanese left China after the Second World War, they left behind food infected with bacteria. Large amounts of biscuits were left, so that those eating them would be struck with disease.

In 1937, the Japanese set up Unit 731, also called the sanitation division, which carried out extensive research and experiments on human beings to develop biological weapons. They used traditional infectious agents and researched how to mass-produce them, how to store them, how to disperse them and how to export them to spread diseases.

There were two groups of Japanese experts. One was arrested by the Russians. The trial was conducted in the Russian city of Khabarovsk and known as the Khabarovsk Trial. The trial proceedings are available to the world. But [after] the world war, a vast amount of experimental data, research, reports and literature was taken away by the Americans in exchange for amnesty. The leading researchers were not tried. So all the data of this unit was taken to America.

Did the Americans enter the field at that time?

The Americans thought the Germans would do it, so the Americans did extensive research during the war. But the Germans were not able to do much. The Americans tried several things. With the help of a laboratory process they tried to increase the virulent form of known agents. The most important research was to develop bizarre methods of transmission. Ordinarily, a mosquito bite transmits disease, but American microbiologists developed aerosol (through air) based ways to transmit diseases.

American scientists were very sad and sorry for having done that research. They collected all the data and published it as the Merck GW report in 1946. They wanted the world to know and insisted that the world should never do such research. But by 1948, the Cold War had started and the American government withdrew every copy of the report from all over the world. No one has that copy. In 1950, the same scientists published a short summary in a scientific journal to protest against the government decisions. I have read that journal.

What was the scenario after the war?

Then the two camps: Americans and British on one side and Russians on the other, started extensive research on viruses and biological warfare. Until 1950 viruses could not be grown in the laboratory. They could be grown in an ordinary nutrient media. They could be grown in a mouse or chicken embryo, but they could not be mass-produced.

But by 1950, tissue culture had arrived. It helped produce viruses in vast amounts. And by that time technology for fermentors was also ready. Lots of research was done on fermentors, which could produce microbes in bulks. Research in animal cells and culture and viruses helped. That's how virology became a big discipline. Both sides in the Cold War were looking for new agents amongst viruses. By the 1960s, both sides had a huge stock of viral, fungal and bacterial agents.

How were these viruses stored?

That's the point. The difficulty was not in making organisms in the laboratory but how to stabilise them so that they would not die. And how to mass-produce them. The most difficult thing was how to disperse them without getting your population and your army infected. That also meant you needed the stock of vaccines in advance.

After spending millions and millions of dollars by the 1960s and 1970s, most scientists realised the difficulties of germ warfare or biological warfare. The first convention was held in 1972 and elaborate efforts were made to ensure that these weapons were not produced or stored. The convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and their Destruction was signed by more than 100 countries, going into effect in 1975. But the research on these weapons was not banned.

In the first phase, the Japanese used ordinary microbes. The second phase belonged to the new methods of transmission developed by the Americans. The third phase was the development of new viruses. In this period yellow fever was aerosolised.

Americans also discovered highly pathogenic and killer viruses in Africa. Ebola, marburg, hanta virus, Congo haemorrhage and Bolivian fever were so dangerous that when they spread naturally, many times, they not only killed the patients but also doctors and nurses attending on them.

When these viruses were discovered, researchers were not far behind. Visiting scientists could tell from the architecture of the laboratory that bio-weapons must be under research here. The dome, the ceilings and air circulation are different [in such labs]. The air that goes in and out is from special filters. The sizes of fermentors, autoclave and incubators are different. Mostly such secret work is carried on under the garb of civilian work.

Don't forget that Britain at Porton Downs, in south England, had employed more than 300 microbiologists. The British government has accepted that scientists are studying biological weapons there. [Britain actually produced five million anthrax cakes at the Porton Down facility, designed to be dropped on Germany to infect the food chain]. In America, after the war, efforts continued at Fort Detrick and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. And many other institutes are doing advance research successfully, like in Russia, in their science city called Novosibirsk. Countries like France must be studying bio-weapons.

At what stage is the research now?

After the agreement was signed, the world entered the fourth stage, which was the most interesting. Smallpox was over. Its viruses were destroyed by every country under the orders of the World Health Organisation and signatory governments. I was the director at Pune's Institute of Virology and destroyed my entire stock. But in the international agreement, the Soviets and Americans insisted they would keep their stock. Till today they have a stock of live smallpox viruses.

They have developed special ways of keeping them. Under my guidance, our Indian representative in the last convention insisted that America and Russia should destroy their stock. They agreed that they would destroy it in 2002. But now, in a war situation, I have a suspicion they will not destroy it. Recently, I heard on television that terrorists may use the smallpox virus. So Americans and Russians will say that they will keep the virus because terrorists could use it.

By 1980, the toxin poison of one bacteria or virus could be added to a commonly occurring virus (like typhoid) and a synthetic agent thus produced. We just don't know what will be produced this way. The era of synthetic microorganisms has come. Those who have the technology of genetic engineering and biotechnology will produce synthetic bio-weapons. No one has any doubt about it. I'll give you some ideas of new possibility, new weapons.

Like?

You know, genome is the genetic structure. Now scientists have infused the genome of influenza virus with snake poison. This can cause death in two hours.

For instance, vaccinia virus is the sister virus of smallpox, which is used for vaccination, but it does not cause smallpox. Now vaccinia virus genome is a large genome. They have attached to it components from more than 30 other viruses. This also has immunologic components.

If you get such a vaccine, you will get immunized to all those viruses. But, here lies the risk. You can also take the virulent part instead of the immune components and the vaccine itself can kill you.

We know there is a little difference between atomic energy and atom bomb. Similarly, for bacteria and viruses. The process can lead to disaster.

Afghanistan was given beet roots by Germans, which could produce more sugar. They replaced their own varieties with the German plants. Then infection occurred and there was not a single specimen left to grow beet roots. Big countries have gene banks of rice and wheat. In case of manmade or natural disasters, they have the advantage.

Where do we stand? Are we ready to face bio-terror?

India neither has biological weapons nor the capability to face such attacks. In 1975, after visiting the world's best laboratories in Russia, Britain, Germany and America I produced a paper. I recommended that Pune should be converted into a high security laboratory where dangerous organisms could be handled without fear of infection to our personnel or community. Now, 25 years later, no such set-up has been created.

I have done everything possible to see that that laboratory comes up. But I failed. People are just not aware of biological weapons. They are swayed away by the scare of anthrax.

Anthrax is an infection of herbivorous animals -- cattle, sheep, goats and others. It does not cause disease in carnivorous animals. Humans are inherently resistant to it. If diagnosed early, antibiotics are effective. Every year more than 20,000 cases of anthrax occur in the world.

Biological weapons are not weapons of mass destruction as is often said. They are weapons of terrorism to dislocate society. Bio-weapons are a psychic killer. They spread panic.

Do Islamic countries have this capability?

The latest technology is aerosol-based. Only advanced countries can produce mass bio-weapons. It requires high degree of knowledge and expertise in microbiology, which is not available with most countries. I doubt Pakistan's capability too. Though a case in Quetta was reported of some infection where a person died of continuous bleeding. Once I had investigated the entire border area to investigate one case that had occurred where a patient, the doctor, nurse and attendant had all died.

Americans are now collecting a huge stock of antibiotics. India does not have anything.

How should have India prepare for such an attack?

We need three levels of integration:

  1. Computerised integrated system to report the occurrence of unusual diseases in any part of country.
  2. This should instantly come to a monitoring station where experts can analyse it quickly and take corrective action.
  3. All laboratories should be linked. Any occurrence of unusual microorganism unidentified by labs should come to the centre. Like in Surat. It was the plague that never was. Surat, Pune, Chandigarh and Delhi's best institution could not identify it correctly. Finally, the Gwalior lab identified that the organism in the specimen was not virulent. It didn't cause disease in animals. The American Public Health Journal has deleted the reported case of the Surat plague from their record. That's India's level of competence!
The Surat experience showed that we need specialised microbiology institutions. It's a question of the nation's security. Our labs buy serums, antibodies and antigens from 30 companies. No one knows the quality of their material. We need three more high-security labs like the one in Pune.

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