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India has never pursued an offensive bio weapons programme

December 21, 2012 19:43 IST

In 2003, the United States Congressional Research Service asserted that there is a danger that India may develop a bio weapons programme. It claimed that 'India is believed to have an active biological defence research program as well as the necessary infrastructure to develop a variety of biological agents'. However, there is no evidence in the public domain of India ever having pursued an offensive bio weapons programme.

Biological weapons has often been a subject matter of debate and intelligence agencies across the world have warned that this could well be the next generation method of attack by terrorist groups.

Security agencies do realise that there is a rising risk where bio weapons are concerned. A report by the BioWeapons Monitor, an initiative of the BioWeapons Prevention Project is dedicated to the permanent elimination of biological weapons and of the possibility of their re-emergence.

In a bid to prevent state and non state actors from acquiring and using biological weapons, BioWeapons Monitor seeks to provide factual information that will enhance discussions on the subject.

The bio weapons report on India:

The National Disaster Management Authority in its most recent report on Nuclear, Biological Chemical and Radiological had said that 400 security personnel had been trained to handle any man made emergencies in and around the Parliament House.

The National Industrial Security Academy in Hyderabad is a regional-level institution that conducts training for the rapid response units, especially on NBC emergencies. Since 2002, the National Civil Defence College at Nagpur has been recognised as a nodal training institute for NBC emergencies training by the ministry of home affairs.

Both the DRDO and the NDMA, with major funding from the ministry of home affairs, will soon be building a multipurpose NBC institute in Nagpur to engage in research, development and training for the military and to support the security forces, as well as to meet civilian needs. The institute is expected to be operational by 2016.

During India's participation in the Bio Weapons Convention at Geneva recently it had agreed to:

  • Include in 2012-2015 intersessional programme a standing agenda item on developments in the field of science and technology related to the convention.
  • To take all necessary safety and security measures to protect human populations and the environment, including animals and plants, when carrying out destruction and/or diversion of agents, toxins, weapons.
  • To adopt legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures, including penal legislation, to enhance domestic implementation of the convention, ensure the safety and security of microbial or other biological agents or toxins in laboratories, facilities, and during transportation and to prevent unauthorised access to and removal of such agents or toxins.
  • To adopt positive measures to promote technology transfer and international cooperation on an equal and non-discriminatory basis to continue supporting, directly and indirectly, capacity-building in states parties in need of assistance in the fields of disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis and combating of infectious diseases and related research to promote the development and production of vaccines and drugs to treat infectious disease through international cooperation and, as appropriate, public-private partnerships.

Indian intelligence agencies have issued intermittent warnings to the ministry of home affairs of possible biological terror attacks in different parts of the country. In September 2003, Indian security agencies issued an alert regarding terrorists making toxins after noticing instructions on how to produce ricin among Al Qaeda training materials.

India has an important life science and biotechnology community. In absolute terms, India ranks thirteenth globally; in its geographical sub-region, South Asia, it ranks first.  The ninth annual survey conducted by the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises in collaboration with BioSpectrum notes that India's life-science and biotechnology industries experienced the fastest rate of growth in the past five years in 2010–11, achieving revenues of $4 billion.

Of this, the biotech industry contributed approximately $45 million, while the life-science education market shares $27 million. In 2012 a government industry joint report has predicted if a favourable business environment is created, the biotechnology and healthcare sectors combined will be able to grow at a rate of 25-30 per cent and have the potential to generate revenues of $100 billion by 2025.

The biotech industry in India is composed mainly of five distinct segments: bioagriculture, bioindustrial, bioinformatics, biopharma, and bioservices. Nearly 40 per cent of the biotech companies operate in the biopharma sector, followed by the bio services (21per cent), bioagriulture (19 per cent), bioinformatics (14 per cent) and the bioindustrial sector (5 per cent).

A 2010 estimate suggests that about 380 biotech companies are operating in India, of which 198 are in Karnataka, with 191 in Bangalore alone. The BioPharma segment continues to dominate biotech industry with 61.77 per cent share in the overall revenue. There is a speculation that India's biopharma sector may see a surge in R&D spending to about $25 billion in the next 15 years.

Biodefence activities:

India is using its growing biotech infrastructure to support biodefence R&D, including the development of countermeasures -- civilian and military -- ranging from protective equipment to pharmaceuticals to vaccines. India's biodefence programme dates back to at least 1973.

The DRDO is spearheading biodefence R&D for civilian and military purposes. It has been working on detection, diagnosis and decontamination measures, such as unmanned ground vehicles and robots that could be sent into contaminated zones.

Medical management during biological and chemical attacks also is being investigated. Other methods of defence currently under development include inflatable structures that can serve as shelter during a biological attack.

In July 2010, India's Cabinet Committee on Security approved a project under which the DRDO has been tasked with developing swift detection systems in case of an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) attack on the country's vital installations and cities or leakage in any of the installations dealing with these materials.

The DRDO, which caters primarily to the Armed Forces, unveiled plans in 2010 to upgrade its existing biotech products and to customise them for civilian use. It has budgeted more than $60 million for upgrading biotech products for both the armed forces and civilians, including intensive-care units, ready-to-eat food products, and clothing that can be worn during NBC warfare.

The DRDE in Gwalior, particularly its microbiology and virology divisions, is the primary military biodefence establishment. It is involved in studies of toxicology and biochemical pharmacology and in the development of antibodies for several bacterial and viral agents.

It is actively engaged in research on biological agents and toxins and has developed diagnostic kits for certain biological agents.

Scientists at the establishment also are researching new methodologies to defend the country against a range of potentially lethal agents categorised as Class A, B and C pathogens, nanotechnology-based sensors, unmanned robot-operated aerial and ground vehicles fitted with NBC detection sensors, laser-based detection for chemical clouds, and selfcontained NBC shelters and hospitals to handle NBC victims.

The Indian Army has already inducted an NBC reconnaissance vehicle and ordered eight such vehicles to counter future threats posed by hostile state and non-state actors.

Work at the facility focuses on countering bioweapons-related disease threats, such as anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, cholera, plague, smallpox and viral haemorrhage fevers. The DRDE has advanced diagnostic facilities for bacterial, viral and rickettsial diseases.

High biological containment laboratories:

India has one operational BSL-4 facility, which is located at the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal. The laboratory was established in 1998; the biocontainment facility became operational in 2000.

The HSADL conducts research on animal diseases such as avian influenza, Nipah virus infection, rabbit haemorrhagic fever, and swine flu.

Another BSL-4 facility is scheduled to be operational at the National Institute of Virology Pune. The facility will be located at the Microbial Containment Complex of NIV, situated at its Pashan campus.

NIV is one of the major life-science institutes of the ICMR. According to D T Mourya, senior scientist and presently heading the group in charge of the new laboratory, the BSL-4 laboratory will be equipped to deal with bioterrorism in the country. Similar

concerns have been aired by NIV Director A C Mishra, who stated that 'viruses can be used as a bioterrorism agent and the BSL-4 laboratory has been designed in such a way that it can detect the virus and counter any bio-terror attack'. This $10 million (approximately Rs 55-crore) laboratory, according to Mishra, which will be commissioned  is supposed to deal with highly infectious pathogenic agents of diseases like ebola, anthrax, lassa, haemorrhagic fever and smallpox (variola virus).

Vaccine production facilities:

Vaccines and recombinant therapeutics are two leading sectors reportedly driving the growth of the biotech industry in India. Both these sectors are estimated to reach $20 billion in 2012.

Mostly to tackle public health challenges, India has been conducting research on vaccines for various naturally-occurring diseases and accords high priority to vaccine manufacturing in the public and private sector. The country produces a range of vaccines to counter infectious diseases.

Disease outbreak data

With regard to particular dangerous agents, the following disease outbreaks were recorded in 2012.

Anthrax: the country is considered an endemic region for animal anthrax in general and south India is considered an endemic region for human anthrax. This deadly anthrax bacteria also found in the ground water in some areas of Andhra Pradesh state. Sporadic cases were reported in livestock and wildlife in 2012. There have been at least 6 reported deaths out of 10 cases of animal anthrax in the current year.

Botulism: none.

Lassa/Ebola/Marburg: none.

Plague: none.

Smallpox: none.

Tularaemia: none.

WMD and Delivery System: This is the only piece of all-encompassing legislation in India, preventing the manufacture, export, transfer, transit and transhipment of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) material, equipment, technology and the means of delivery.

The Act is a major export control tool under which any form of proliferation is considered a criminal offence. Penalties range from five years in jail to life imprisonment, along with fines.

The Disaster Management Act of 2005. Indian Environment Protection Act (1986).

This prescribes procedures and safeguards for the handling of hazardous substances. A hazardous substance is any substance or preparation that, by reason of its chemical or physico-chemical properties or handling, is liable to cause harm to human beings, other living creatures, plants or micro-organisms.

Past biological weapons activities and accusations

In its 1997 CBM, India did not say anything about the existence or non-existence of past offensive bio weapons activities. In 2003, the United States Congressional Research Service asserted that there is a danger that India may develop a bioweapons programme.

It claimed that 'India is believed to have an active biological defence research program as well as the necessary infrastructure to develop a variety of biological agents'. However, there is no evidence in the public domain of India ever having pursued an offensive bioweapons programme.
Vicky Nanjappa