It was 31st December, 2019 and the world was gearing up to celebrate New Year 2020. It was on that day that China, the world’s second economic superpower shocked the world by informing World Health Organization (WHO) that a cluster of 41 patients with mysterious Pneumonia symptoms have been admitted in Wuhan medical hospital and they all are connected to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. What started as a mystery disease was first referred as 2019-nCoV and later on as COVID-19. It is a virus disease and has spread at alarming rate throughout the world forcing governments around the world to shut all its activities and mandating its citizens to stay indoors for weeks.
It also led to virtual blame game between China and USA. US blamed China of concealing facts regarding its origin and the scale of havoc it wreathed among its citizens. While some people termed it as ‘an act of biological threat, other people on social media started spreading conspiracy theories. In one of the leading world magazine ‘Foreign Affairs’ Yanzhong Huang, an expert on China and senior fellow on Global Health for Foreign Affairs, wrote an article in March 2020 titled ‘US-China Distrust Is Inviting Dangerous Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory’ that there is conspiracy theory on social media that ‘the virus was a biological weapon and that it had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan or an American one inflicted in Wuhan and while it is just a rumour, it certainly pointed out the loopholes in the China’s biosafety regulations.
Amid all these chaos in world politics, a new range of discussions have started regarding biosafety laws and biosecurity laws and need of uniform international body to deal with such acts. Before dealing about legal part, lets first address about exactly what is biosafety and biosecurity.
In general terms, Biosafety is a set of measures or actions addressing the security aspects related to the application of biotechnology and to the release into the environment of transgenic plants and other organisms. This particularly involves microorganisms that can adversely affect plant genetic resources, plant, animal or human health or the environment. The term ‘biosafety’ is sometimes complimentary to biosecurity’. Biosecurity refers to the implementation of laboratory practices and procedures and appropriate occupational health programs when working with potentially infectious agents and other biological hazards, these measures are designed to reduce the exposure of personnel working in these laboratories, public, agriculturists and environment to potentially infectious agents and other biological hazards. There is however strike difference among two terms. While ‘biosafety’ aims to prevent accidental infection and pathogens being released from laboratories, ‘biosecurity’ denotes policies and protocols designed to prevent malicious use of pathogens and toxins.
Laboratory acquired infections in past three decades has grabbed attention of researchers, scientists and governments. It is an infection which may occur in tested labs and has possessed concern among public as a contagious infection transferring from a person working in these laboratories to nearby society. Now that we have discussed these two terms, it is prudent to know about existence of laws particularly international laws relating to ‘Biosafety’ and ‘Biosecurity’ laws.
INTERNATIONAL LAWS AND TREATIES RELATING TO BIOSAFETY AND BISECURITY
- The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the first international agreement to deal with safe handling, transporting and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity taking into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29th January,2001 and came into force on 11th September, 2003. As of 2019, 172 countries have ratified this agreement. The protocol consists of 40 Articles and 3 Annexes. Article 15 and 16 deal with risk assessment and risk management to evaluate, identify the possible adverse of living modified organisms and maintain appropriate mechanism to regulate, manage and control risks identified in risk assessment.
- The World Trade Organization in 1995 enforced an ‘Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and PhytoSanitary measures’ also known as ‘SPS Agreement’ with an aim to provide the balance of governments to protect food safety, plant and animal health. This agreement allows countries to set their own standards which must be international standards but that regulations framed must be based on science and must be applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life [Article 3(2)]. These sanitary and phytosanitary measures take many forms such as products manufacturing and transporting from disease-free area, inspection of products, setting of allowable maximum percentage of pesticide residues in a product.
- The Biological Weapons Convention, 1975 is the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Under this treaty in the third review conference, it was agreed that the state parties shall provide annual reports on specific activities related to the BWC including data on research centers, laboratories, information on vaccine production facilities, information on outbreak of infectious diseases.
- International Health Regulations, 2005 (WHO):- The purpose of these regulations are to prevent, protection against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are equivalent with and restricted to public health risks and which avoid unnecessary interference with international trade. These regulations are not limited to a number of diseases, rather they are constantly changing and are intended to have long lasting relevance in the international response to the emergence and spread of disease. It also provides legal basis for health documents applicable to international travel and transport and sanitary protections for the users of international airports, ports and other ground crossings.
- Australia Group was founded in 1984 with the aim to ensure that the industries of participating countries did not assist either purposefully or inadvertently states seeking to acquire Chemical and Biological Weapons Capability(CWC). The members of this group should have an established, effective, legally-based system of national export controls and demonstrated compliance with all multilateral treaties banning CWC activities. The list of items over which all Australia Group participants exercise national export control includes 111 pathogens and toxins that affect human life, livestock animals and food plants; dual use production equipments like containment facilities.
Above mentioned are some of the international agreements and treaties that deals with biosafety and biosecurity laws in some way. But considering recent pandemic situation, all countries and especially those who are worst affected by it needs to come together on a common international platform to frame protocols and international treaty on biosafety and biosecurity laws in context of laboratory testing and pathogens so as to save human life. We now need uniform international standards more than ever rather than focusing on national safety standards like WTO has delegated to its member states. The world also needs transparency in execution of these framed rules by member nations and make sure that laboratories functioning in these countries which carry out any test on pathogens and chemical toxins must carry out in maximum safety standards. Rules and safety protocols must also be framed for personnel working in these laboratories and inspection of standards and safety standards must be carried out and revised either annually or at a regular interval of time by panel of international experts on biotechnology, law, international affairs etc.
COVID19 is an alarm for the mankind to wake up and realize what went wrong in the past and to move forward with precautions which are in line with environment and biological ecosystem.