India is contemplating a criminal investigation into the origins of the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19, top sources have told CNN-News18, a revelation that comes in the backdrop of a growing clamour in the West for a probe into the roots of a pandemic that has killed over 3.7 million people across the world.
Sources say a proposal is being drafted for a first information report, or FIR, on the matter. If approved, the proposal would lead to the filing of an FIR under the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, 2005, and relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA.
It could allege that Covid-19, which was first reported in China's Wuhan city in December 2019, was an act of bio-warfare against India, according to the sources. To be sure, the move is in a preliminary phase.
"It is still at the proposal stage. No final decision has been taken," a source said.
Section 4 of The Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act, 2005, deals with the subject of biological weapons and bio-warfare, among other things.
Section 4(a) defines biological weapons as: "(i) microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes…"
Section 8 of the Act, which deals with prohibition relating to weapons of mass destruction, says in subsections 3 and 4 that no person shall "unlawfully manufacture, acquire, possess, develop or transport a biological or chemical weapon or their means of delivery", and no person "shall unlawfully transfer, directly or indirectly, to any one biological or chemical weapons".
Section 14 says life imprisonment can be awarded if anyone is found guilty under this Act. "Any person who contravenes, or attempts to contravene or abets, the provisions of section 8 or section 10 of this Act, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine," it says.
The statement of purpose of the Act highlights the country's international commitments. "…India is committed to its obligations as a State Party to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction…," it says.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is the nodal agency empowered to probe such offences. If the proposal gets the approval of the country's top leadership, NIA could be asked to register an FIR.
Even though the Act was passed in Indian Parliament as a commitment to stop nuclear proliferation — seven years after the Pokhran tests — officials say it could provide the framework to probe biological warfare allegations, along with sections of IPC that deal with criminal conspiracy and waging war against India, as well as UAPA.
The origin of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a matter of intense debates — and speculations. There have been claims that the Sars-Cov-2 virus was leaked (accidentally or otherwise) from a lab in China's Wuhan, the city where the first cases were reported. In the initial days of the pandemic, this suspicion was discarded by a large section of scientists as a conspiracy theory. It was also suspected that the virus spread from a seafood market in Wuhan that sold exotic animals, but no evidence to prove this theory had been found.
Scientists also suspected that the Sars-Cov-2 virus could be linked to bats and might have passed through another mammal before jumping on to humans. But the missing link has yet to be established. With no credible natural source, demands have grown in the West for a probe into the lab-leak theory. Meanwhile, China — which has faced criticism over its secretive approach — has accused the US of spreading disinformation.
A joint report by Chinese scientists and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which sent a team to Wuhan, did not draw any firm conclusion on the origin of Sars-Cov-2, though the experts said the chances of the virus leaking from a lab was "extremely unlikely". The team said the virus could have jumped from bats via another animal. But later, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said all theories remained on the table.