The conventional view of the COVID-19 outbreak is that it originated in Wuhan, China, near the most sophisticated Chinese bio-weapons lab and then proceeded into the world from there, leaving people to guess whether it originated in the lab and leaked, came from wild bats or snakes, or came from an exotic meat market.
Regardless of the source of the coronavirus, it may now be a roadmap for future bio-terrorism. The damage has been quick and enormous — much greater than 9/11 — and worldwide. The responses have been predictable and ineffective. And the cost of a potential weapon such as this is close to zero.
It has been so long since the early instances of using toxins, chemicals, and diseases as agents of assassinations and/or even mass murder. There are numerous historical and even modern instances of using toxins in assassinations, or using contagious diseases in warfare without even knowing about the bacteria or virus.
By the fourteenth century, the idea that the immediate cause of epidemics was some sort of corruption in the air was widely accepted. It was believed that this corrupted air could gain entrance to the body by way of the lungs or through wide-open pores in the skin as a result of excesses, bathing, or heat. Also in the fourteenth century, additional prominence was given to the idea of contagion. In the theory of contagion, the “poison” was originally generated in man himself and spread person-to-person by contact with the sick or dead, or with their personal effects (fomites).
A report by the Italian chronicler Gabriel de Mussis of the siege of Caffa (1345–47) is often credited as describing an early deployment of a “biological weapon”, thus triggering the “Black Death” in western Europe. He reports that Mongol troops threw plague victims into the city with catapults, thus contaminating the inhabitants. However, re-evaluation of historical, biological and epidemiological data indicates that the spread of the disease was probably an inevitable consequence of the intense trade relations along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Therefore, the alleged catapulting of infected corpses would rather have been a marginal contribution to the diffusion of the disease (if it took place at all). The infection was subsequently spread by refugee ships via ports at Constantinople and along the Mediterranean trading routes and harbours towards Genoa, Marseille and Venice, thus initiating the Plague in Europe.
Since 1900, there have been a number of incidents in which the use of a biological agent was suspected. In 1932, a gramophone pin gripped the imagination of Bengalis obsessed with crime and mystery. Byomkesh Bakshi, writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s iconic literary detective, had come across a baffling case in Pother Kanta (Thorn on the Path), in which the killer uses a bicycle bell as a spring gun to shoot people with gramophone needles in busy thoroughfares.
The same mechanism was employed by another criminal two years later, in what is now registered as the Amarendra Pandey (or the Pakur murder) case 1934 in the archives of Kolkata Police. This case is ‘one of the first cases of individual bio-terrorism in modern world history’.
Due to a property dispute, Vinayendra decided to have his brother Amarendra killed. Brotherly love ceased to exist between two half-brothers sometime before 1933. In that year Vinayendra sent a medical man to Bombay to obtain a culture of Pasteurella pestis from the Haffkine Institute. The medical man commenced work in Bombay, ostensibly on treating infected animals with a special cure and left rather abruptly with a culture in his possession. On November 26, 1933, at Howrah railway station Amarendra, while waiting for a train to take him to Pakur, was pricked in the arm by a stranger who disappeared in the crowd. At Pakur he fell ill and returned to Calcutta for treatment on November 29, 1933. In Calcutta he died on December 4, 1933, and was certified to have died from septic pneumonia. A culture of blood taken during the illness, at the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, proved to be of Pasteurella pestis — the plague bacteria. Plague in Bengal and Calcutta was last heard of in 1925.
The case commenced, numerous medical witnesses were examined in the Court. Conviction followed. Vinayendra and the medical man were sentenced to death. The sentences were commuted by the Privy Council to penal servitude. They were ordered lifetime imprisonment and exile to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The judge mentioned in the order that the case was “probably unique in the annals of crime”.
A Police officer, Supratim Sarkar published twelve crime stories from the archives of Kolkata Police on Facebook, which include the Pakur murder case and then published them in a book named Murder In The City: Twelve Incredible Case Files Of The Kolkata Police.