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Coronavirus could be used for biological attacks, expert warns

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said Covid-19 had caused more of a shock than the Second World War.

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Workers use an electrostatic sprayer for deep cleaning (Brian Lawless/PA)

Workers use an electrostatic sprayer for deep cleaning (Brian Lawless/PA)

Workers use an electrostatic sprayer for deep cleaning (Brian Lawless/PA)

Coronavirus has shown how a “not very virulent pathogen can bring the world to its knees” and this will not go “unnoticed by bad actors”, a chemical and biological weapons expert has warned.

Describing the disease as having caused “more of a shock than the Second World War”, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said that while he is not suggesting Covid-19 is a biological weapon, “it could be” used as one.

He said: “Unfortunately, there are bad actors around who want to do us harm.

“A lot of them are thinking there’s no better way to do it than a SARS-type pathogen. But like any threat, if you face up to it, you can mitigate it.”

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Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. (Headline/PA)

Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. (Headline/PA)

Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. (Headline/PA)

Mr de Bretton-Gordon, who has been working on chemical and biological attacks around the world for 30 years, said the Salisbury Novichok attack demonstrated Russia has an “ongoing chemical weapons programme” and other “bad actors” like the so-called Islamic State terror group have seen how effective this type of warfare can be.

He told the PA news agency: “I think Covid has been a big wake-up call on the biological security front.

“We haven’t really seen any devastating pandemic like we’ve seen with Covid really since the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed millions of people.

“What Covid has shown is that actually, a not-very-virulent pathogen can bring the world to its knees.

“And this won’t go unnoticed by bad actors.”

He added: “Although Covid is not a biological weapon – and I wouldn’t suggest that – but it could be, you then start to get very concerned.”

While “lip service” had been paid towards defending countries against such attacks ever since the end of the Cold War, a “concerted effort” is needed to make sure the UK can defend itself against another Novichok-type incident in future, he said, as he urged the British and American governments to continue to strengthen their defences.

More also needs to be done to tackle the spread of disinformation, particularly online, in the wake of an attack which can cause “mayhem”, he said, adding: “Warfare and conflict is changing very definitely.”

Recalling the poisonings in Salisbury three years ago, he said people were “really frightened” at the time and it was “bizarre” to learn something of that nature had occurred in his home city.

In his latest book, he tells how his “jaw almost hit the floor” when he heard the news while in the Middle East and, after suspecting the involvement of Novichok, he frantically phoned his family to urge them to stay indoors.

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Chemical Warrior by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (Headline/PA)

Chemical Warrior by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (Headline/PA)

Chemical Warrior by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (Headline/PA)

Describing how the deadly substance could kill thousands of people even with an amount the size of a quarter of an egg cup, he praised the “brilliance” of the emergency services and military for the “comprehensive clean-up” which saw Salisbury effectively plunged into lockdown to eradicate traces of the substance.

Mr de Bretton-Gordon said: “In a strange sort of way, it did prepare the residents of Salisbury for what Covid is like – all about decontamination and staying away from places.

“Actually, Salisbury had 18 months of that and it was just remarkable that only five people were injured, and desperately sad that one person was killed, but it could have been very, very much worse.”

Asked if traces of the nerve agent may still be discovered, he said: “Well, yes, there is a chance. But I think it would be microscopic and the chance of somebody ingesting it, I think, is virtually nil.”

He added: “I don’t think that the two people responsible will ever come to justice unless for some reason they decide to leave Russia,” and said this was “highly unlikely”.

Chemical Warrior by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is published by Headline in hardback and will also be available in paperback from May 27.

PA


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