GENETIC ENGINEERING AND BIOTERRORISM
“In warfare there are no constant conditions. He, who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent, will succeed and win. “
The biological weapons and the whole set of biological agents capable to be abused in some of the future asymmetric or even symmetric conflicts is a nightmare scenario. A long time ago, the idea of using some exotic virus or forgotten bacteria in a terrorist attack has sounded like a science fiction movie. Now it is our potential reality, the dimension of biological security which will never be the same. Bugs will be always around, ready to be militarized from humans and against humans.
When we think about the biological warfare, we must make a distinction between the state program of biological weapons and the non-state attempts to develop the deadly germs. The former Soviet line of biological weapons production has never been ended with the BIOPREPARAT, which was a full capacity industry established in 1973. The main goal of the Soviet regime was to develop efficient agents what could be enough practical to be used in some of the tactical battles. But, the Soviets weren’t the only one interested in weaponized biological agents, the British and the U.S. military experts have never given up on researching the killing abilities of the germs. The Middle Eastern countries followed the global powers and it seems that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 only officially closed the biological weapons development but the real story has continued behind the doors of each country.
On the other side, the growing influence of the non-state actors renewed the idea of biological weapons used against the enemy. Terrorism brought the atmosphere of the fear and the concept of bioterrorism is a threat we are dealing with every day. As one said, it is not the question if, but when that will happen. The old encouraging thoughts about the lack of professionalism among the terrorists and the lack of biotechnological resources to cause the harm became the case study number one for all security experts. The problem is not only limited on the religious fanatics who will spread Ebola in the name of Allah but on every category of lone wolf who find themselves stuck in hate towards the system. Unfortunately, the democracy and the security don’t collaborate very well. If you want to have one fully implemented, another is almost impossible to achieve because they deny each others. American system is a typical example how those two do (not) work together on the ground. The security tries to control democracy but at the end of the day, the democracy makes security measures ineffective. The government can’t ban the weapons exhibition in Utah and stop Tom to show his own guideline for home production of the bio weapons. Tom is just a scientist and he has a civil right to express himself on that exhibition. The second problem is John or Mohammed who will come on that manifestation and find a background for their own dirty plans and plots against the target. For democracy to be free, security is always limited.
In the age of genetic engineering and the advanced biotechnological researches, the well known list of potential biological agents is almost like a classic story vs. postmodern. The possibilities are numerous for military industry to play with. In the era of DNA synthesis, the DNA sequencing and the experimenting with the genome of the bugs sound like an ideal precondition for global apocalypse. The scientists and the military professionals are aware of the disadvantages of the tested biological warfare so they are looking for a new one which will face up with all challenges and show the good attribute in the negative environment. The goal is to make a perfect hybrid agent which will combine the best characteristics of all deadly germs and has lasting nature. Dr. Steven Block, the biological weapons expert stated that the main interest for the science is to discover the useful pathogen which will be safer to handle, easier to distribute, with high mortality and which will have the specially made ethical markers so it could be started from the distance and for targeted group when it is needed.
What military science is dreaming about is not so far away from the reality in the biohazard laboratories today. Genetic engineers are trying to increase the efficacy of the microbes in the warfare through some of the techniques. Binary Biological Weapons means inserting plasmids or tiny bacterial fragments into the DNA of other pathogen so the virulence could be empowered. There is also gene synthesis and according to available information, microbiologists had already sequenced the genomes of 3139 viruses, 1016 plasmids, and 2167 bacteria. Then we come to the gene therapy which covers the replacing genes with those what are totally harmful. The famous technique of stealth viruses remains still the mystery for the public but it is definitely something we must count on in the near future. The virus which could be saved in the host and activated when it is necessary as a matter of political or security blackmail sounds like a diamond goal for every advanced military power. Host-swapping diseases are those what come from the zoonotic disease but could be easily abused as a tool against humans. We should not forget the designed disease or the microbes with the ability to cause the cell revolution in the body with the fatal end. The personalized bio weapon is also the highest scientific dream or the mankind’s night mare. The biological agent specifically designed to attack one target and to escape another had found place in many novels but luckily it is still not realized.
The concept of Chimera or super bug is a top task for all military laboratories worldwide. The term Chimera came from the Greek and Roman mythology and means combined elements of lion, goat and serpent into one monstrous form. In our biotechnology vocabulary, it defines the monstrosity of the deadliest pathogen ever. The Soviet Union’s Chimera Project studies the possibility to make hybrid from Ebola and Smallpox. The two viruses are enough scary by themselves and matching their sequences, would mean open the Pandora’s Box for this world. The real problem is to think about the possible existence of parallel laboratories which are not under the state control. We know that money can do everything and even can make scientists willing to work for dark biology and biological warriors. In that case, underground biotechnology production of Chimera weapons would be victory of the evil forces and this option must be prevented and preempted. The state authorities must control the black market of genetic material and the fluctuations of the ideas in this direction. That doesn’t mean tyranny and the failure of democratic rights but the security pattern for stable system and society. The Chimera is a monster and it must stay outside.
BY: Sandra Schmidt, MSc
Sandra’s special interests include researching and writing about Biological Weapons, Biosecurity and Biodefense. Sandra hails from Serbia.