The novel coronavirus in Wuhan has caused nationwide alarm and prompted some people to claim it is a biochemical attack, writes Li Daguang, a researcher at the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army.
Although the source of the pathogen remains unclear; a seafood market where wild animals were butchered and sold is suspected. However, the possibility of another source earlier than the market cannot be ruled out. Yet that does not mean the virus outbreak is a biochemical attack on China but it might as well be exactly that and even the fact that the possibility is being debated, reflects people’s growing awareness of modern biological warfare and fear of it.
Any government, including the U.S. government, should be alert to such risks and ready to counter any such attack. For this, it is necessary for people to have a basic understanding of biochemical warfare and epidemics.
Biochemical warfare is when biochemical toxins and germs are used as weapons to kill or incapacitate and cause panic.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and the former Union Soviet Socialist Republics began research into biochemical weapons following Germany and Japan using biochemical weapons and programs during wartime.
Biochemical weapons have been severely condemned by the international community and gradually banned.
For instance, the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was opened for signatures in 1972 and came into force in 1975 to ban the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Eight review conferences of the BWC were held until 2016 and the Ninth BWC Review Conference will be held in 2021.
However, the threat of biochemical warfare remains. Because biochemical weapons can cause mass casualties in a large area at a lower cost than conventional weapons, they have been taken as an approach for terrorism.
Because of their potential wide dissemination and impacts on public health and morale, as well as public stability, the high risk to national security of anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Lassa are listed Category A bioterrorism agents/diseases by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And people still lack effective measures to combat viruses such as Nipah, Zika, and the coronaviruses that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome and the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and Ebola. Emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus are listed by the US CDC as Category C bioterrorism.
“At the moment, there is no ‘surge capacity’ in the hospital system to deal with any big incident that caused extensive casualties,” says George Poste the Del E. Webb Professor of Health Innovation and Chief Scientist at The Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative (CASI) at Arizona State University (ASU).
Not only the government but the public should be alert to the risk of biological and chemical agents and diseases. Therefore, improving the ability to prevent and cope with biochemical warfare is necessary for your family security.
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For most people, the full extent of a biological attack is difficult to imagine. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax letter attacks, few people would have given the risk of bioterror a second thought. Today, however, a number of experts have repeatedly warned that it’s just a matter of time before there’s a significant bioterrorism attack on U.S. soil. Since 2001, senior government officials have placed bioterrorism among the top of the list of national security concerns.
How an actual biological attack would unfold depends on many variables, including which biological agent is used and how it’s dispersed. For the average person, trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible biological scenario is almost impossible. It makes more sense to plan and prepare to address the basic survival needs that are common to all disasters — food, water, security/self-defense, first-aid/medical, sanitation/hygiene, and of course, knowing when to stay put and when to get out. If the unthinkable happens, having a plan and appropriate supplies will be essential, especially in the days following the initial attacks.
Here are some things to consider:
Staying Informed: Upon learning of a bioterrorism attack, the public will most likely look to local, state, and federal authorities for guidance and direction. Since the average person will have no clue what sort of bio-agent was used, how it was dispersed, or how far or in what direction it has traveled, knowing how best to respond will be difficult. Without substantial guidance, the public will be at a tremendous disadvantage. Although the best possible course of action may be to get as far away from the attacks as possible, that option may not be feasible. For instance, if the source of the attacks is unknown, leaving may be the worst thing to do since large crowds of departing residents may actually be unknowingly heading straight into an area of heavy contamination. Staying alert for critical warnings and alerts from government officials will be key to surviving the initial stages of a suspected attack.
Sheltering In Place: In some instances, the best option may be to shelter in place, avoiding all exposure to the infected and waiting for more detailed information. In the absence of a clearly defined plan with clear objectives — for example, knowing where to go and how to get there safely — staying put may be best. To shelter in place, however, you need supplies. Plan ahead and store an inventory of all the essentials.
Avoiding Exposure: Avoiding anything that may have been touched by an infected individual will reduce the possibility of exposure. During a potential attack, the public will need to protect itself not only from other people, but also from domestic animals, objects, food, and water. If the agent is airborne, staying indoors may be the only option for most people.
Having Food and Water: Having supplies will allow people to avoid exposure to potentially contaminated food and water, at least in the early stages of any attacks. Having supplies also makes it much easier to stay home and off the streets (i.e. sheltering in place). People who lack sufficient supplies will have no choice but to take to the streets in search of food and water.
Having Medical Supplies: First-aid kits, prescription medications, particulate masks (N95), goggles, and surgical gloves are some of the basic supplies every household should maintain.
Having a Bug-Out Bag (BOB): Bugging out, or getting out fast to an alternate location, is usually not recommended unless you have a secure place to go and a safe way to get there. But if the authorities advise the public to evacuate, there will probably be no time to pack for the trip. In the event of an emergency evacuation order, having a pre-packed BOB can help your group get out quickly. Food, water, self-defense, eye and face protection, and important personal papers are just some of the things to have packed and ready to go.
5 Bioterrorism quick facts
1. Bioterrorism is a very real threat, especially to urban dwellers in densely populated areas. Terrorists also know that the most devastating aspects of a bioterror attack could be psychological — millions of people reacting to news of the attacks with fear and panic, causing inevitable waves of chaos.
2. Biological agents come in many different forms — some occur naturally, others are designed in a lab to be more effective. All can be lethal.
3. Biological agents can be spread in many different ways — person to person, through the air, or via water.
4. As with other kinds of terrorism, the objective of bioterrorism is to cause disruption, fear, and mass hysteria. Biological weapons appeal to terrorists because they are highly effective at achieving these goals. Agents can be released to spread far and wide before the first person ever begins to show any symptoms.
5. A large metropolitan area, with a high population density, would be the most attractive target for terrorists. A well-coordinated series of attacks could have a devastating and long-lasting impact on society, the economy, civil order, and essential public services.
Bioterrorism is the stuff of nightmares. Terrorists know that one of the most devastating aspects of any bioterror attack will be the chaos that follows. In the aftermath of such a disaster, there will be two groups of people — the prepared and the unprepared. Being prepared is not just about having supplies; it’s also about having a viable plan and being able to respond quickly to changing conditions. In the face of uncertainty, preparations can tilt the odds in your favor and expand your options. Stay safe and be prepared.
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