Experts admit that China was not fully prepared to face such a serious challenge as an epidemic, which, according to various estimates, can cause the same economic and social damage as a full-fledged regional war.
The Global Times reported, citing Wang Peng from the Chongyang Institute of the People’s University of China, that biological threats can arise due to mutations as well as be man-made and used by military adversaries as a means of destruction. The peculiarity of biological threats is that, unlike traditional weapons, their spread is not limited to the scene of operations: both the military and civilian population are at risk.
According to Wang Peng, the coronavirus epidemic has demonstrated that China needs to develop a strategic biosecurity programme, for example, to create biosecurity troops that would directly report to the Central Military Commission.
The Chinese military has been of great help in fighting the coronavirus: more than 10,000 military doctors have been sent to Wuhan, the hotbed of the epidemic. At the height of the outbreak, when hospitals were overcrowded, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) helped build hospitals to temporarily accommodate patients. Military transport aviation was involved in transporting patients and medical personnel as well.
The efforts were not in vain: over the past days, China’s Ministry of Health has reported only 125 new cases of infection – great progress compared with the thousands of new instances confirmed every day a few weeks ago. Moreover, more than half of all coronavirus patients have recovered.
It is likely that in the future the epidemic's spread will be controlled, not only through strict quarantine measures, but also with the help of a new vaccine that China has already developed. Chinese social media reported that PLA Major General Chen Wei, who, being an epidemiologist, was actively involved in fighting the SARS epidemic and Ebola, was the first to test the new coronavirus vaccine.
However, despite China’s current advances in the fight against coronavirus, the epidemic has also indicated certain flaws in the country’s early warning and biological threats fighting systems, Li Junxiong, deputy director of the Institute of Microbiology at China’s Academy of Social Sciences, said.
“We can learn a lot from the current epidemic. For example, the fact that the central government and local authorities in Hubei province have introduced a quarantine regime in Wuhan helped a lot in preventing the epidemic spread. As for the effectiveness of the early response system, whether it was possible to take action earlier, certain conclusions have yet to be drawn.
But if there are certain changes in the public health system at the legislative level, if the legal system, monitoring and responses are applied together in close connection, this will help prevent similar epidemics in the future”, the expert said.
Wu Qian, the official spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defence, didn’t directly mention the intention to create special biosecurity troops. However, he has recognised the importance of the problem as well as the need to establish a national control system in this area.
According to him, China will soon develop special biosecurity legislation and create a system of legal support for ensuring national security. Li Junxiong believes that biosecurity can only be achieved through comprehensive measures. This requires both legislative instruments, military strategy, and, most importantly, the proper functioning of the civil healthcare system.
“Of course, the military field is needed in matters of biosecurity. However, I personally believe that the way public and civil healthcare function is even more important. For example, I noticed how people in Russia reacted to the epidemic. On 31 January, the Ministry of Health published a list of measures to combat the coronavirus; they were released very quickly, and, moreover, were clear and understandable. These measures were implemented not by the military, but by public health authorities. And today, there are very few cases in Russia, so we can say that the system is efficient”.
There are no special biosecurity troops in Russia: these functions are performed by the Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defence Troops. During the current coronavirus outbreak, Russia's military helped evacuate Russian citizens from China. However, a significant part of the anti-epidemiological actions were performed by the public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor and the Ministry of Health.
The latter quickly published guidelines on how to prevent, diagnose and treat the new coronavirus infection. In January, the Rospotrebnadzor scientific centre developed test systems to diagnose the coronavirus. Local authorities’ initiatives have also played a great role.
Compliance with quarantine measures is monitored by law enforcement agencies with the help of face recognition cameras installed throughout the city. So far, a combination of different measures has helped contain the coronavirus spread in Russia.