NEW DELHI: The jury is still out on the exact origin of Covid-19, even though both China and WHO contend it was not lab-made at Wuhan. But the pandemic has underscored like never before the need for India to be prepared for deadly bio-threats, whether they arise from natural outbreaks or bioterrorism.

Defence scientists and experts, in fact, warn that though the possibility of overt bio-warfare by a state is remote, the danger of non-state actors getting hold of virulent biological agents and unleashing them for “low-cost, high-impact strikes” in the country should not be discounted.

“Terrorists can get hold of germ weapons, which can cause anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism, Ebola, SARS and the like, from microbiological labs and other facilities. They will be like silent bombs nobody can detect. Biological weapons, in fact, are far more easier to obtain or develop than ‘dirty’ nuclear bombs,” he said.

India needs to prepare for bio-threats, whether accidental or planned, at both the military and civilian levels because they can be highly contagious and spread widely to disrupt national security and public health.

“A national mission mode program on mitigation of bio-threats should be launched, with an inter-ministerial steering committee and overall coordination under the national security advisor, because they can impact the nation’s comprehensive national security,” Dr Selvamurthy told TOI.

Noting that India has only one advanced Bio-Safety Level-4 (BSL-4) facility at the National Institute of Virology in Pune, he said at least five more such labs in different parts of the country for advanced R&D on the pathogens and genomic profiling were needed.

“We must have a central database of pathogens. There should be robust surveillance mechanisms, which would include development of nanotechnology-based bio-radars with sensor arrays for pathogens. All this should be backed by comprehensive containment, decontamination and restoration strategies,” added Dr Selvamurthy.

The country also needs properly-trained and well-equipped quick-reaction teams to handle virulent pathogens, as also other CBRN contingencies, stationed at different regional centres in the country.

While DRDO has developed a wide array of CBRN defence equipment for the armed forces over the years, ranging from nerve agent detectors, dosimeters and decontamination kits to integrated field shelters, respiratory masks and suits, it needs to focus on futuristic technologies for early detection and mitigation of such threats. “The urgent need to have strong bio-defence capabilities has been brought home by Covid-19,” said a scientist.