Maritime Dimensions of COVID 19 (Synthesised terror?)

Published at on 07 Dec 2020

One of the main objectives of terrorism is the instilling of ‘terror’ or ‘an extreme form of anxiety’ not only in the hearts and minds of the direct targets of terrorists but also those who get indirectly linked to the act and at times a large section of the society. There is a method behind the perpetrated acts of terror which eventually aims to achieve the ultimate goals of the terrorist outfit.[1] The impact of a terror attack can be very destabilising on the economy, politics or the various sections of the society.

Imagine that a terrorist organisation through its nefarious means can frighten and bring to stand still say 90 per cent of global trade flowing across the global commons? Or brings to heel the profitable cruise liner business? Or puts a break on the operations of the sentinels of the seas, the navies of the most capable nations of the world? Just imagine the impact on the global economy; the fate of the seafarers and merchant marine; the tourism industry or the warfighting ability of the navies- the only word that comes to mind is catastrophic!

But that is what has happened in the maritime domain if one assesses the incidents during the current pandemic!

“Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection – all these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever,” [2]

Pope Francis, 17 June 2020

COVID 19 has impacted all strata of society in diverse ways. One such affected section is that of the maritime domain. There have been delayed/no crew changes on merchant ships as ports are not permitting them to berth and the flights are not available to take the crew to go home.[3] The merchant ships have been idling at sea for want of clearance to berth and discharge their cargo. It has become a humanitarian crisis leaving hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded on ships. The inability of merchant ships to berth, in turn, has impacted over 90% of global trade and disrupted the supply chains.

Cruise Ships

Diamond Princess, a British-registered cruise ship had the first serious of break of COVID 19 on board. The ship had to be quarantined in Yokohama as more than 700 passengers and crew fell prey to the virus. The spread of contagion onboard led to ports refusing docking facilities to cruise ships and several cruise trips being cancelled. Numerous cruise ships have since then fallen prey to the pandemic, some of them are: Diamond Princess, Ruby Princess, Oasis of the Seas, Grand Princess, Celebrity Eclipse, MS A’Sara, Disney Wonder, Costa Luminosa, Symphony of the Seas, Artania, Voyager of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas, Carnival Freedom, Celebrity Solistice, Zaandam, World Dream, Silver Explorer, Costa Faolosa, MS Braemar, Marella Explorer 2, Majesty of the Seas, Sun Princess, Carnival Valor, Celebrity Infinity, Explorer of the Seas, Novergian Bliss, Norwegian Breakaway, Silver Shadow, Costa Victoria, Norwegian Encore, and MSC Fantasia.[4]

Some of the countries which declined/restricted port entry to cruise ships include Taiwan, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Seychelles, Singapore and the USA.


Life on a warship is tough, from cramped spaces to steep ladders, from the common galley to shared washrooms, form tight working spaces to hazardous naval operations, it requires a dedicated mentally and physically sturdy seaman to carry out the tasks at sea. Personnel cannot avoid coming near others in even the most mundane of tasks or personal routines. Except for senior officers, no one has the luxury of separate quarters, with men sharing a dormitory to junior officers sharing the cabins everyone has to function in cramped spaces. Despite the air-conditioning of the compartments in modern ships, hot/cold and humid environment outside can flare up the infectious diseases. Further, it is almost impossible to maintain social distancing of one meter.

COVID 19 Cases have been reported onboard many warships, some of them are listed below:

United States- USS Tripoli, USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan, USS Ralph Johnson, USS Nimitz, USS Kidd, USS Essex, USS Coronado, USS Carl Vinson, USS Boxer, USNS Mercy, USNS Leroy Grumman, USNS Comfort. A total of 40 U.S. Naval Ships were affected by COVID 19, and the sailors had to be provided treatment or kept under quarantine.[5] USS Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. warship to report COVID 19 cases on board at the end of March 2020, while on deployment. The ship finally had a tally of over 1100 cases.[6]

Taiwan- ROCS Pan Shi

Netherlands- HNLMS Dolfijn

France- Charles de Gaulle, Chevalier Paul

In early April 2020, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had to return to its homeport Toulon after nearly 40 crew members began to show COVID 19 symptoms. It was deployed along with sister ships as a carrier battle group. Other ships that were part of the group also returned to their home ports. Eventually, a total of 1046 members of the crew were found to be cases of COVID 19.[7]

Belgium- Leopold I

Indian Navy

Fortunately for the Indian Navy, no COVID 19 cases have been reported from its frontline ships. As per a press release of the Ministry of Defence, “There has so far not been a single case of Covid-19 onboard any ship, submarine or air station of the Indian Navy. Our naval assets continue to be mission-deployed in three dimensions, with all the networks and space assets functioning optimally. The Navy remains combat-ready, mission-capable and is in full readiness to partake in the national mission to fight the pandemic as well as to provide support to our friendly neighbours in the IOR.[8] However, the same cannot be said of the Indian Navy’s shore establishments. In early May 38 sailors had to be put in isolation at Mumbai in shore establishment INS Angre. 16 Navy trainees tested positive at the naval base at Porbander.

Does the COVID 19 qualify as a tool in the hands of a terrorist organisation?

Let us think of COVID 19 as a terrorist’s weapon, whose aim is to spread global terror-

The weapon is formidable, because it is an invisible virus, has a size between 65-125 nm. It is a Non-living parasite so it cannot be killed, it multiplies in the host, and moves from one host to the next. It spreads to others by the most common habits of the host, without which the host cannot survive. Further, the asymptomatic host is unaware that he/she is a carrier of this deadly virus. COVID 19 is Striking humans irrespective of geographic or demographic discrimination. It is Striking at the fundamental ability of the Human body to intake oxygen, and it leads to an excruciating death in about 5 per cent of cases.

It has deprived humans of all social norms, rituals and rites associated with life and death. What is more, it has attacked the coalescing or grouping ability of human species to fight any type of onslaught. COVID 19 has isolated people at the individual level; there is no alternative but to distance oneself from one’s closest at a time when maximum support is required to cope up with the calamity. In times to come, it will turn humans against each other. It strikes those who can help in recovery. Lastly, it has a humongous capacity to multiply its numbers without any external logistic supply chain.

Currently, there is no antidote or preventive medication available; there are no weapons or technology to counter it. At this juncture, a few words about viruses and bacteria would be relevant.


“A minimal virus is a parasite that requires replication (making more copies of itself) in a host cell,”….. “The virus cannot reproduce itself outside of the host because it lacks the complicated machinery that a [host] cell possesses.”

Prof Jaquelin Dudley of University of Texas

Bacteria vs Virus

Bacteria comprise of a single cell which can survive on its own since it can move, reproduce, produce food and energy. The ability to generate its food allows a bacterium to survive in various environments like humans, animals, plants, water or soil. By carrying out the decomposition of organic matter in nature, they play an essential role in our life. The virus can only grow and reproduce inside a cell. Size of a Bacteria starts from about 0.4-micron diameter while viruses’ range in size from 0.02 to 0.25 micron.[9] Bacteria cause infection by producing toxins or by themselves, generally in a localised area like tetanus, food poisoning or pneumonia. Viruses infect cells to create a systemic disease like measles, polio, AIDS or COVID 19. Interestingly, the virus can infect bacteria.[10]

Viruses linger on the edge of what is considered life and an inert object. On the one hand, they contain the key elements that make up all living organisms: the nucleic acids, DNA or RNA (any given virus can only have one or the other). On the other hand, viruses cannot independently read and act upon the information contained within these nucleic acids. The host’s cellular machinery allows viruses to produce RNA from their DNA (a process called transcription) and to build proteins based on the instructions encoded in their RNA (a process called translation).[11] The genetic material of a virus is encapsulated in the capsid, which is a protective coat made up of protein. The capsid can at times be further encapsulated in an envelope of spikey coating Viruses are capable of latching onto host cells and getting inside them. Once the virus has replicated itself by using the host cell, it pushes against the plasma membrane of the cell and sticks to it. The plasma membrane becomes the envelope for the virus, eventually, the cell gets destroyed, and the virus moves on to replicate this process over and over again. This process (budding or bursting out) is called Lysis.[12]

Coronaviruses contain a genome composed of a long RNA strand, incidentally “The closest known relative of the current SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID 19 is a bat virus named RaTG13, which was kept at the Wuhan Institute of Virology WIV, Wuhan. Other Coronaviruses known to us are Severe acute respiratory syndrome SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS viruses.

Synthesised COVID 19 as a terrorist’s tool

So, what is the connection between COVID 19 and terror? It is an easy question because COVID 19 When used as a weapon by a terrorist organisation, fulfils all the requirements, that an extremist organisation desires to further its reign of terror. It puts the target population in extreme danger, at times begging for release from life itself, it virtually drains the society of resources, collapses the economy, it provides intense continued publicity, it offers an ultimate platform to a terrorist organisation who can offer a cure or curtail the disease in case its demands are met in toto. Does COVID have origins in a laboratory? Is it a natural virus? The debate rages on and has not yet been concluded.

Debate-Laboratory origins of COVID 19

There have been speculations in the media that the COVID 19 virus had its origin in Wuhan since it is the home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, WIV. WIV is the global centre for bat virus research. Also, Wuhan has the laboratory called Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (WCDPC) which is just about 250 meters from the Wuhan Animal Market, and it is in this laboratory the bat coronaviruses are kept. It is being speculated that either a natural Sars-CoV-2-like virus or a genetically modified one escaped from the lab causing the COVID 19 pandemic. However, this needs to be investigated in detail, and nothing can be confirmed until a professional investigation is carried out.

Pointers to a non-lab origin

Dr Mark Kortepeter, a biodefense expert, writing for Forbes has countered the lab origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus using the following arguments to counter lab origins:[13]

– Previous outbreaks of SARS occurred in China in 2003. China is the home to bats which carry coronaviruses. So, the outbreak has not taken place in a different location.

– Previously used medicines becoming ineffective argument does not apply in this case because this a new virus with no known medication.

– This virus spreads through exhaled droplets between humans and has no vector like a mosquito to transmit it.

– In bioterrorism it is expected that virus or bacteria would be sprayed on a large population to make it effective in a short period, this has not been the case in respect of SARS-CoV-2.

– Affected people display unusual symptoms. This is not the case here as coronaviruses are known to severely infect the respiratory tract.

– There is insufficient evidence in respect of SARS-CoV-2 originating in a lab due to genetic manipulation or that in connection of its transiting from bats to animals.

Pointers towards a lab origin

Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson have examined the aspect of lab origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in an article in Independence Science and have assessed that there are pointers towards a possibility of an inadvertent release of this virus from the Wuhan labs.[14] There could be a possibility that one of the two labs in Wuhan that works on coronaviruses accidentally let a natural virus escape; or, the lab was genetically engineering (or otherwise manipulating) a Sars-CoV-2-like virus which then escaped.

The following points are relevant:

-In a previous case it is said that H1N1 virus had got accidentally released in 1977 from a laboratory in Russia possibly while a flu vaccine was being developed. This H1NI virus led to a global pandemic. There have been other virus escape cases from the laboratories too.

The fact that Wuhan was the epicentre of the virus outbreak implies that the natural virus did not pass on from bats to animals and then to humans since the bats in question have a habitat about 1500 km from Wuhan at a place called Yunan. If it were a natural transition, the outbreak would have happened near Yunan.

Till date, no intermediary transfer to animals has been seen in respect of COVID 19 virus.

-Experiments like Passaging and Gain of Function GOF or a combination of the two could have led to the escape of the SARS-COV-2 from the lab. From the research papers of the scientists at the WIV, it appears that: they had been collecting bat samples with SARS-like coronavirus strains, they were carrying out passaging experiments on live viruses, they had associated with GOF experiments on bat coronaviruses, the laboratory had produced recombinant bat coronaviruses and placed these in human cells and monkey cells.[15]

-It is also borne out by investigations that majority of lab virus escape cases have been as a result of human errors. Therefore, it is very plausible that a scientist while collecting or working on bat coronaviruses at one of the two labs at Wuhan got infected through human error and passed on the infection to others which in turn led to the current pandemic.

Can COVID 19 be synthesised?

So, the question before us today is; can COVID 19 or similar virus be synthesised in the laboratory and acquired by rogues for monetary, ideological or political gains?

Scientists have been able to recreate viruses in the laboratory using synthetic genomics, to further the study of viruses, and to develop antiviral drugs. Notable among the laboratory created viruses being the Poliovirus, a SARS type virus, and also an influenza strain for Spanish Flu of 1918-1920.

Fortunately for us, acquiring the expertise to manufacture these viruses is not easy, apart from requiring costly and sophisticated equipment, it depends as much on the written down procedures as on the experience of the scientists, or their tacit knowledge, which cannot be written down. Kathleen Vogel of Cornell University has extensively researched this aspect.

On the other hand, scientists like Gerald Epstein believe that a few of the standard genetic-engineering techniques in respect of the very complex whole-genome synthesis are now accessible to undergraduates and even advanced high school students, and could, therefore, be appropriated fairly quickly by terrorist groups. Thus, raising the possibility of the same, being cornered by terrorists in the coming decade.

As per a U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity report, “The technology for synthesising DNA is readily accessible; however, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art.”

The “weaponisation” of any virus would need it to be produced in the laboratory in sufficient quantities, making it stable, producing it in a concentrated form and finally designing an efficient dispersal system. That any terrorist organisation would also desire an antidote as a prerequisite would further complicate the issue.

As per virologist Jens Kuhn, “The methods to stabilise, coat, store, and disperse a biological agent are highly complicated, known only to a few people, and rarely published.” Thus, even if terrorists were to synthesise a viral agent successfully, “they will in all likelihood get stuck during the weaponisation process.”

This view is strengthened by the fact that terrorists have not been successful in making an actual nuclear bomb from stolen fissile material. It is not only the availability of the building blocks but also the fact that actual weaponisation process has to be carried out precisely, which is essential. However, it is also true that peaceful research into the synthesis of any pathogen can be carried out, as it does not violate The Biological Weapons Convention treaty of 1972.

So that rules out small terrorist outfits and leaves in play rogue nations and large terrorist organisations, to be able to attempt weaponisation of viruses shortly, utilising advances in biosynthesis. The threat exists but is not imminent soon.

Protocols set up to deal with COVID 19 virus in the maritime domain

Merchant Marine

Given the pandemic COVID-19 outbreak, The International Chamber of Shipping, ICS, has brought out a document titled “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers”. This document extends guidance to all types of ships which operate in international waters. This guidance has been based upon the advice provided by United Nations agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), as well as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). [16] The guidance covers the aspects of Port Entry Restrictions, Protective Measures Against COVID-19 for Seafarers, Outbreak Management Plan for COVID-19, Pre-Boarding Information, Pre-boarding Screening, Information and Awareness, Suspected Cases of Infection, Close Contacts (High-Risk Exposure), Hygiene Measures for Seafarers on Ships, Management of Suspect Cases by Medical Support Providers, Precautions at the Ship Medical Facility, Laboratory Testing, Case Handling, Isolation, Reporting to the Next Port of Call, Disembarkation of a Suspect and a Confirmed Case, Cleaning, Disinfection and Waste Management, Management of Contacts of a Suspect Case, and Supplies and Equipment.

Currently, many nations have enforced federal and local restrictions which include, delayed port clearance; prevention of crew or passengers from embarking or disembarking (preventing shore leave and crew changes); prevention of discharging or loading cargo or stores, or taking on fuel, water, food and supplies; and the imposition of quarantine or refusal of port entry to ships (in extreme cases).[17]

The ICS has brought out that it is very vital for port States to accept all ships (both cargo and passenger), and disembark suspected cases on board. Both the flag States, companies and Masters should work with port State authorities to ensure, that: cargo operations are carried out, stores and supplies can be loaded, ships be provided repair and survey facilities, passengers be allowed to embark and disembark, seafarers can be changed and, necessary documentation and certificates can be issued.[18]

United States Navy

“Our forces continue to operate forward every day; the impact of COVID-19 on the global community only heightens the critical role our Navy plays in maintaining security and stability at sea,”

Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer

The U.S. Navy acknowledges that despite precautions it would be safe to assume that asymptomatic carriers would be present on board; therefore, all precautions in respect of COVID 19 virus should be carried out by wearing face masks, washing of hands, conducting routine ship dis-infecting and includes guidance for ships at sea that cannot medically evacuate personnel. The U.S. Navy has issued revised guidelines titled “COVID-19 Standardized Operational Guidance” on 27 May 2020. [19] The guidance previously issued in April 2020 titled “U.S. Navy COVID-19 Mitigation Framework Protect the Force and Preserve War Fighting Readiness”,[20] has been revised. The U.S. Navy also released a document “The U.S. Navy COVID-19 Leaders’ Handbook” [21] on 30 June 2020. This document is aimed at naval leaders at all levels and provides essential information for dissemination to their teams about the threat; data informed risk prevention and mitigation procedures.

Indian Navy

The Indian Navy has put in place a comprehensive document “Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic- Indian Navy O/0 DGMS (Navy)” [22] which lays down in great detail all actions to be taken by an Indian Naval establishment or a ship/submarine to stay as safe as feasible and maintain its warfighting capability at all times. An eight-point Octad plan has been enforced which covers the aspects of: hand wash, respiratory etiquette, social distancing measures, travel advisory, environmental cleaning & disinfection, keeping fit, COVID awareness, and self-screening & reporting. If any suspected case is reported onboard a Ship, COVID-19 Case Management Action Plan has to be activated. Standard operating procedures SOPs have been implemented for deployment. These include risk assessment, screening, stocking, earmarking of isolation and quarantine spaces, SOPs at foreign ports, SOPs during sailing, and after return from deployment.

Indian Submarines

This section has invaluable inputs from an ace submariner Commodore ASPI Cawasji, NM, VSM retd. Conditions on board a submarine, especially when she is sailing are incredibly conducive for spreading the COVID 19 virus, so extreme caution and care is required to be taken when proceeding out of port for lengthy patrols.

Submarines are required to undertake a Risk Assessment before sailing regarding the duration of the sea sortie as well as a threat perception of the pandemic at the port of call. The crew boarding the submarine should have already undergone a quarantine of 14 days. The whole crew would be examined for symptoms of COVID19. Those who are found to have symptoms would be disembarked immediately. The submarine would have to be adequately stocked with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), disinfectants, hand hygiene sanitisers and medical stores to manage respiratory illnesses. The submarine has to earmark isolation and quarantine spaces onboard like the Sick Bay or a particular crew cabin or Mess before sailing. On return to base in case of no symptomatic personnel, the full crew would have to be quarantined for seven days. In the case of COVID 19 symptomatic personnel on board, they would be transferred to the nearest service hospital. The other personnel would be quarantined for 14 days, or lesser if tests conducted turn out to be negative. Environmental cleaning and disinfection of the submarine would be carried out after returning to the base port as per established protocols.

On detection of any suspected Covid19 case onboard a submarine at sea during war patrol deployment, depending on location in hostile waters, mission phase, importance and criticality of the mission, the submarine would continue on patrol and maintain her secret mission. In case of transit in hostile waters or if she is operating outside the confines of own/ friendly firepower umbrella having crossed the point of friendly Causality Evacuation (CASEVAC), the submarine would maintain her mission profile. However, in case numerous cases of Covid19 have been detected, and lives are in danger, the submarine would only as a last resort terminate her mission and return to the closest port/ base port to disembark affected personnel. Whereas, on detection of any suspected Covid19 case onboard a submarine at sea during peacetime deployment, it would be treated as an emergency and all efforts to evacuate the patient to a hospital ashore by helicopter or accompanying friendly forces would be taken. All actions required to contain the spread of the virus onboard would remain the highest priority.


The brief discussion above brings out the gap in securing our seaborne trade in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack involving synthesised viruses procured by large terrorist organisations or rogue nations. The debate about COVID 19 being of a lab origin or may not be conclusive. Still, it does highlight the possibility of such a scenario taking place in the future, maybe with a much more potent say Destructive ‘D’ virus (Synthesised or natural) than the COVID 19. The D virus may in future target specific geographic areas or genetic markers or spread through air or leach through the skin and remain an asymptomatic transmitter till the very end of the infected person. There is a need, therefore, to address this gap in such a way that the global economy does not collapse and take down nations with it on one end and annihilate millions on the other. As far as the maritime domain is concerned much more elaborate protocols have to be put in place in consultation with all stakeholders at the earliest so that the seafarers and the warfighter at sea are empowered to take on the next wave of COVID 19 that may ensue or for the D virus as and when it attacks in the future.


[1] Schmid A. (1988) Goals and Objectives of International Terrorism. In: Slater R.O., Stohl M. (eds) Current Perspectives on International Terrorism. Palgrave Macmillan, London

[2] Cindy Wooden, Pope prays for stranded seafarers. 18 June 2020. The Tablet. (Accessed 10 July 2020)

[3] Kate Whiting. Stuck at sea: How to save the world’s seafarers and the supply systems they support. World Economic Forum. 19 June 2020. (Accessed 10 July 2020)

[4] Áine Cain, Mark Matousek, Ruobing Su. All the cruise ships that have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 onboard. Business Insider, 12 April, 2020. (Accessed 09 July 2020)

[5] Report: 26 U.S. Navy Ships Have COVID-19 Cases. Maritime Executive. 22 April 2020. (Accessed 09 July 2020)

[6]. Servet Günerigök. USS Theodore Roosevelt’s coronavirus cases exceed 1,100.Anadolu Agency. 01.05.2020 (Accessed 11 July 2020)

[7] “Coronavirus: 1.046 marins contaminés sur le Charles de Gaulle, le bilan est définitif”. France Bleu. 18 April 2020. (Translated using Google) (Accessed 13 July 2020)

[8] Indian Navy Continues to be Mission Deployed and Combat Ready. PIB. 18 April 2020 (Accessed 12 July 2020)

[9] ‘Virus’ vs ‘Bacteria’ The key differences between two common pathogens. Merriam-Webster.,can%20reproduce%20on%20their%20own. (Accessed 13 July 2020)

[10] 9 ibid.

[11] Aparna Vidyasagar. Live Science. 06 January 2016 (Accessed 08 July 2020)

[12] (Accessed 14 July 2020)

[13] Mark Kortepeter. Did Covid-19 Come From A Lab? Was It Deliberate Bioterrorism? A Biodefense Expert Explores The Clues. Forbes. 19 June 2020. (Accessed 14 July 2020)

[14] Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson. The Case Is Building That COVID-19 Had a Lab Origin. Independent Science News. 03 June 2020. (Accessed 15 July 2020)

[15] 14 ibid.

[16] Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers. Version 1.0. 03 March 2020. The International Chamber of Shipping. (Accessed 15 July 2020)

[17] 16 ibid.

[18] 17 ibid.

[19] Navy Issues COVID-19 Standardized Operational Guidance. 27 May 2020. (Accessed 18 July 2020)

New Guidance (Accessed 18 July 2020)

[20] U.S. Navy COVID-19 Mitigation Framework Protect the Force and Preserve War Fighting Readiness. 13 April 2020. (Accessed 18 July 2020)

[21]The U.S. Navy COVID-19 Leaders’ Handbook. 30 June 2020. (Accessed 16 July 2020)

[22] Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic- Indian Navy O/0 DGMS (Navy). 17 April 2020. (Accessed 16 July 2020)