In March the Russians deployed over 100 of its military specialist Chemical and Biological troops to Italy last month to help with the COVID crisis. A genuine gesture or cynical propaganda stunt?
Similarly, last week the Russians flew a vast Antonov aircraft full of personal protective equipment to the richest, best-resourced country in the world, the USA, and apparently made them pay for it. Is President Putin now the social conscience of the World? Perhaps, but it would be great if he also felt able to help the 4 million civilians trapped in Idlib with COVID, in the most perilous position after his ally, President Assad, has destroyed most of the hospitals and infrastructure in that province.
The biological phenomena of the COVID pathogen, currently crippling the planet, is giving us all first-hand experience of what the horrors of chemical and biological weapons might be. Though COVID appears to be a naturally dispersed pathogen, it is acting like a biological or chemical weapon, completely indiscriminate and unbelievably destructive. It must be treated as if a weapon and attacked with medical countermeasures and standard operating procedures such as masks, staying at home, testing and social distancing.
Last week France interdicted millions of masks from China on route to Sweden. The US did the same for masks on route to Canada. In the past, global wars have started over what would appear lesser issues. Masks, or rather complete Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) now seem to be the liquid gold. It is the currency of most relevance, and most of it comes from China, where the virus originated, in not too clear circumstances. The UK and US are some way from being out of the woods, and the virus will no doubt haunt us for some time, but we can reasonably expect that as China, South Korea, and others begin to emerge from this nightmare, we will do similar in the coming months.
PPE has become a central issue and we are in the invidious position of relying on much of our supplies coming from China who still have questions to answer about the virus. I am not suggesting this was deliberately started, but it could be that the lack of information initially did not help dampen the global spread. Supply of protective equipment is a really important issue and we must look at assured domestic supply in future. (Full disclosure, I am employed with a company producing respirators for the emergency services and military).
Perhaps, post-COVID, everybody will have some sort of mask as we did in WW2 – ironically, my house was requisitioned as a gas mask factory during the war. Many key items of defence equipment are made only in the UK, and the US has a similar policy for assured supply reasons. It is likely that this is not an isolated incident and in future, we must be better prepared.
It is not a big step to move from a gas mask to an anti-virus mask. But rather than some paper mask which creates waste etc, something a bit more robust that lasts a long time. Now that the NHS are directing staff to reuse PPE after cleaning, I am a little surprised we are not looking more closely at military respirators which are designed to be used multiple times and easy to decontaminate. The main concern is their austere look, so make them yellow or blue? This is not a non-trivial task but easily achievable. Silicon rubber takes colour well, though not great for a gas hazard because of permeation issues, it should still be excellent for this biological pathogen.
As a chemical and biological weapons expert, I am not surprised by the fear and disruption that this has caused. This is what biological and chemical weapons are designed to do. The key to successfully countering chemical or biological weapons, appear the same as the virus – medical countermeasures and the right operating procedures, like the right PPE, testing, social distancing etc.
This is absolutely not a biological weapon, but the results we all see, are almost more terrifying than any hitherto envisaged by chemical or biological weapon attack, and we must re-double our defensive capabilities in this area. The impact of COVID will not go unnoticed by every dictator, rogue state, and terrorist.
In future, every nation must ensure it is better prepared for virus attack, and pivotal to that strategy is to ensure that domestic industry has the capability to ramp up the supplies of masks, ventilators and other vital equipment, rather than rely on third party supply and especially not from dubious origins. To not do this could lead to the potential for wider conflict created by a similar medical crisis.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE. Biological & Chemical Weapons expert. His new book ‘Chemical Warrior’ can be preordered at Amazon.