COVID-19 causes concern, but darker threats remain


Having just returned from the Singapore Airshow (11-16 February), it will be of no surprise to learn that trade visitor numbers were significantly down due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) from its starting point in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in China.

Chinese organisations banned from exhibiting

The organisers, following the general advice of the Singaporean Government, quickly banned 12 Chinese organisations from exhibiting, and this was further reinforced by the general ban on Chinese citizens from entering or transiting through Singapore.

Some of the world’s leading American defence companies were next to withdraw from exhibiting, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Honeywell and CAE. Italy’s Leonardo halted its participation on the eve of the show. The organiser’s stated at the beginning of the event during its media briefing that around 70 companies had pulled out – around eight percent of the total. At time of writing (the week after the show), no confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported that are linked to the airshow.

Spread of the COVID-19

With the method of communicating the virus from one person to another still to be determined, and with a vaccine unlikely to be available for large scale distribution for, at best, over a year, there is a good chance that it will remain in international circulation for some time.

Taking the example of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked and isolated in a Japanese harbour with the number of new cases of infection being reported almost daily despite the passengers ensuring enforced isolation; what if a case of coronavirus was detected on an aircraft carrier.

Perhaps a crewman with relatives who had just visited from one of the countries with the infection – it need not be China as currently cases have been reported in around 28 countries – contracted the virus. But as the virus is currently believed to develop between two and 14 days, then his/her ship may have already sailed before symptoms occur. It such an enclosed space as an aircraft carrier (or even on a small ship such as a frigate), the opportunity for that one person to infect other crew members would be high. Once onboard, isolating the crew while still running the ship would be virtually impossible and that vessel in all likely hood would have to return to port.

Not that this scenario is currently likely. Virtually every case so far has had a connection with someone from Wuhan, or China. But there is a warning for the future, it terms of the appearance of a more virile virus (by accident or by deliberate intent) that spreads across international borders much faster, or is much more deadly than the coronavirus has proved to be.

Threats of a biologically ‘weaponised’ virus

This also serves as a reminder that a biologically ‘weaponised’ virus is still a potential threat which could be used by a ‘rogue” nation state or non-state terror groups, should they be able to develop or obtain the capability.

Chemical threats are also real, remembering the Tokyo subway sarin attack in March 1995 that killed 13 people with hundreds more being effected, and the anthrax attacks beginning in September 2001 that killed five people including two US senators, and infecting 17 others.

Nerve agents also have the potential to cause unlimited casualties if allowed to perpetuate, as was demonstrated in the alleged attack by two Russian intelligence operatives on the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, on 4 March 2018, using the nerve agent Novickok.

In terms of strategic threats to nation states and their populations and even armed forces, the spread of viruses and the threat of pandemics serve as a reminder to what is ultimately possible in terms of either targeted or widespread use of biological or chemical weapons, but not what is likely.

by Andrew Drwiega