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Biological Weapons amidst the Biotech Revolution
The End of a Looming Threat or a Nightmare Exacerbated?
The world is on the cusp of a biotech revolution that portends a myriad of salubrious scientific breakthroughs that will undoubtedly change our lives for the better. Nevertheless, some potentially catastrophic security concerns are likely to accompany the development of these otherwise propitious technological achievements. History suggests that emerging political, business and social structures are more adept at utilizing nascent technologies than their more established counterparts. The biotech revolution stands to alter the conduct of warfare more dramatically than the infotech revolution. Biotechnology affords sub-state groups the type of destructive power previously available only to the superpowers. The production of biological weapons has become an increasingly diffuse scientific enterprise since the end of the Cold War, and as far as terrorists are concerned, they represent the ultimate means of sewing political discord and instigating economic disruption. Deploying biological weapons has become exceedingly simple, their development is not capitalintensive and they do not require sophisticated delivery systems to be lethally effective. Unlike nuclear weapons that destroy everything within a certain radius, biological weapons are uniquely advantageous in that they can shutdown vital activity without destroying physical infrastructure. At the height of its biological weapons program, the Soviet Union had ICBMs loaded with several kilograms of highly infectious pathogens processed into a powder finer than bath talc that can drift in the air for miles at a time. Pathogens are ideally dispersed in an aerosol cloud of particles measuring about one to five microns in diameter (in other words, a line of a hundred particles in a row would scarcely equal the thickness of a human hair), inhaling just one of these particles can be lethal. In general, there are two types of biological weapons: the contagious variety (like smallpox) that spread rapidly, potentially resulting in unrestricted chaos and death; and then there are those with limited lethality that cannot be spread from person to person, such as cutaneous Anthrax. Modern research efforts aimed at developing militarily effective biological agents often “weaponize” certain diseases by increasing their pathogenicity and refining their deliverability. Genetically altering the pathogenicity of infectious organisms can boost their lethality and make them more resistant to treatments and vaccines. Weaponization can also involve a refinement of the toxin’s means of delivery and release. Biological weapons offer a great deal of flexibility in terms of delivery systems, they can be unleashed on their targets using missiles with toxin-loaded explosive warheads, clusterbombs, crop-dusting aircraft, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or even simple handdelivery. Several pathogens can be used as weapons, but the unique virulence of four toxins in particular suggests that they are the most likely candidates for weaponization. Smallpox is a particularly attractive choice because, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it was officially eradicated in 1977. As such, it is no longer vaccinated against because the mortality-rate associated with the vaccine was no longer considered to be worth the risk for an extinct disease. The vaccine only lasts for about 15-20 years, so even individuals that received the last few vaccinations in the early 1980s are no longer protected, making it a very attractive pathogen to weaponize. Anthrax is a
non-communicable but notoriously infectious disease, contracted by touching or inhaling Bacillus anthracis spores. Contracting anthrax cutaneously is fatal in two out of ten cases, but inhaling the spores is typically fatal regardless of treatment. The second disease likely to be used is Botulism, a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria that causes muscular paralysis and often leads to fatal respiratory failure. In its natural form, Botulism is generally treatable, but a weaponized toxin could be orders of magnitude more lethal. Finally, Pneumonic Plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria typically found in rodents, the organism responsible for the 14th century global pandemic that killed approximately 75 million people. Plague symptoms are typified by fever, chest pain, bloody sputum, and eventually death. The disease can be treated by modern medicine, but the symptoms’ slow onset (usually about three days) increases the speed at which the disease propagates itself, which makes containment extremely difficult. The United States operated an offensive biological weapons program at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), in Fort Detrick, Maryland. President Nixon shut down the program in 1969, for fear of pioneering weapons that could later be turned against the United States or its allies. Although some of them may have been designed to spread disinformation, a significant number of news articles and journal publications since the 1970s suggest that biological weapons are ineffective as a strategic deterrent and operationally impractical at the tactical level. Logic, however, suggests that those assertions are incorrect. Pathogens can be highly effective weapons, researchers need only “test them to find out [which ones hold the most promise], and then learn how to make them work” says Ken Alibek (formerly Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, a Soviet biological weapons engineer at Biopreparat). Alibekov insists that biological weapons can be effective because he developed one: a durable, highly infectious, and vaccineresistant strain of Anthrax. Should it choose to mount an attack on a densely populated metropolitan area, one of the challenges a rogue state or terrorist organization would face would be to locate individuals with the appropriate scientific background and then convincing (or more likely, coercing) them to support their cause. Very few individuals outside the United States and the former Soviet Union are technically competent enough to dry and process virus and bacteria samples into protectively-coated micro-particles capable of being inhaled. Monitoring the employment and international travel habits of scientists with backgrounds in fields like micro-biology used to be relatively simple when they were predominantly trained at Western universities and easily identifiable. But after the events of September 11th 2001 and the anthrax-letter attacks a month later, the US dramatically curtailed its acceptance of foreigners to its universities and research institutions. International students seeking an American education have been discouraged from doing so by recently implemented visa restrictions and steadily increasing tuition costs. However, it would be a negligent mistake for policymakers to assume that the expertise necessary for manipulating pathogens is exclusively available in the West; there are a number of first-rate biological science institutions around the world. Furthermore the widespread availability of online research data, including step-by-step production protocols, means that terrorists can clandestinely obtain the knowledge to produce biological weapons from practically anywhere. Compared to the task of acquiring rare scientific expertise, obtaining the hardware necessary to produce biological weapons is surprisingly far less daunting. Research involving “hot” viruses (airborne infections without a known cure) like Ebola or Marburg virus, generally require a BioSafety Level 4 laboratory, facilities featuring multiple air-locked chambers with closely monitored
directed air flow. Technicians in BSL-4 labs wear protective suits with individual oxygen supplies and work on samples enclosed in a specialized cabinet with an air supply of its own. Although the technical requirements associated with facilities considered BSL-3 and above have been considered to be too demanding for their construction in less developed countries, certain technological breakthroughs allow modular mobile BSL-3 labs to be constructed on short order and in the most inhospitable environments. Another disconcerting fact is that the virus-propagating flasks known as “bioreactors” are available for as little as $25 on eBay. Once produced, delivering the pathogen to its target is relatively simple. A “line-source laydown” by a modified commercial helicopter or cropdusting aircraft could disperse enough weaponized powder over an open-air stadium or music concert to kill thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly through contagious infection. The global diffusion of information pertaining to the production of biological weapons is a serious cause for concern, but even more disconcerting is the relative simplicity of acquiring pathogenic organisms. Before genetically-modified viruses became the pathogen of choice for biological weapons, South African and Iraqi scientists were significantly impressed with the potential military value of naturally occurring and widely available pathogens. Some of the more promising ones include fungal toxins like mycotoxins and aflatoxins; commonly occurring anthrax spores; and other viruses, toxins, and bacteria that result in botulism, cholera, polio, or influenza. The lethality and widespread availability of such pathogens suggests that terrorists will likely attempt to use them at some point in the future. The small-scale production of pathogens using cloning technology is another source of biological weapons that has been negligently underestimated. Once a diseasecausing gene has been identified and its location published in an academic journal, scientists or terrorists can use cloning kits (available from typical lab equipment catalogs) to clone that gene and then splice it into a common host bacteria. Emerging Defense Technologies The biotech revolution has spawned a number of cutting-edge technologies; some of which could potentially provide a significant advantage against the threat of biological weapons. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) realized the significance of biotechnology for defense applications in the mid-1990s. By 1999 the agency funded more than $40 million dollars worth of bio-defense research projects. That budget grew to nearly $150 million in 2002, primarily due to DARPA Director Larry Lynn’s emphasis on pathogen countermeasures. (Marshall) In 1996 DARPA began funding a project that focused on removing foreign bodies from the bloodstream, a concept originally developed by Dr. Ronald Taylor at Dartmouth University. According to Taylor, a receptor located on the surface of red blood cells known as CR1, is primarily responsible for removing materials that the immune system’s complement-cascade-proteins have tagged as foreign. The alien substances are then bound to the CR1 receptor and flushed out of the body through the liver. This particular technology has the potential to purge any known virus from the human body in less than two hours. Another ambitious research effort bankrolled by DARPA in the late 1990s involved manipulating mesenchymal stem cells to detect and respond to biological threats. Mesenchymal stem cells constitute the primary source of bone, cartilage, fat, and muscle tissue. The general idea is that these cells can be “preprogrammed” with a number of transplanted genes, which would then
populate the tissues of the recipient into which they are injected. Theoretically, these cells could identify specific pathogens and activate certain genes to trigger a curative biological response. This approach circumvents the troublesome need for multiple injections, depending instead on cells engineered to automatically vaccinate the body against pathogens. The primary drawback of such methods is their dependence on the pharmaceutical industry. DARPA may fund their initial research and development, but it is unlikely to provide the financing necessary to transform prototype vaccines into functional and available countermeasures to biological weapons. According to its FY2007 budget expenditures, DARPA invested heavily in three specific “bug to drug” research endeavors. The first research effort involves protein design processes and is intended to make the human body synthesize an antidote to a contagion in less than 24 hours. The project depends on mathematically calculating the structure and function of certain vaccine components in order to spontaneously customize the design of certain analeptic proteins, specifically antibodies. The second area of bio-defense research supported involves rapid vaccine assessment. Such a technology would have to include immune cells and micro-scale immune structures, perhaps eventually manifesting itself as a chip-based human immune system capable of rapidly screening potential vaccines in a matter of weeks instead of years. Finally, one of the fundamental problems associated with defending against biological weapons is that in the event of an attack, even if the vaccine or antibody were known and readily available, it could not be produced and stockpiled rapidly enough to be of any significant value to the majority those afflicted. However, DARPA evidently perceives that to be a surmountable obstacle, investing heavily in its Accelerated Manufacturing of Pharmaceuticals program, intent on exploring various challenging but technologically feasible methods of producing millions of doses of a complex new therapeutic in 12 weeks or less. Although unrelated to any current DARPA initiatives of which the author is aware, there is another very promising, albeit relatively long term and unconventional, approach to pathogen countermeasures. This approach would involve the use of inhibitors to disrupt protein enzymes such as proteases which are instrumental to pathogenic invasion. For instance, the botulinum toxin could be effectively neutralized by using inhibitors to target the zinc endopeptidase in its light chain (the polypeptide subunit of an antibody). Similarly, anthrax could also be detoxified with inhibitors, by using them to target the source of its lethality: zinc protease. The diffuse applicability of this approach hinges on the fact that all pathogen invasions are enzyme-contingent. The pathogenic enzymes can be inhibited without the risk of crippling those required for normal functions, primarily due to the characteristically high substrate specificity among viral and bacterial enzymes. Although the validity of this approach has been repeatedly confirmed by the clinical use of protease inhibitors to successfully treat infections, at present it must be considered a long-term solution. By today’s technological standards, it takes about ten years to produce an effective protease inhibitor. However, that development time could be drastically reduced by using advanced supercomputers in the drug discovery process. One final emerging technology that may prove to be invaluable against an adversary armed with biological weapons is the Femtosecond Adaptive Spectroscopy Techniques for Remote Agent Detection (FASTREAD). The FASTREAD program is designed to detect biological agents at a standoff distance using coherent nonlinear optical spectroscopy, laser pulse shaping techniques, and adaptive optics in conjunction with other efforts to better elucidate the agent under interrogation, such as return signal optimization strategies. Primarily based on coherence theory (the optical effects
resulting from partially coherent light and radio sources), FASTREAD exploits the spectral and temporal information provided by the backscatter from short-pulse lasers to identify specific biological agents. The system is extremely promising but must first overcome several technological and developmental challenges before its true potential can be fully realized. First, the program requires a thorough evaluation of the effect of environmental congruities on the system’s ability to identify anthrax spores. Such factors include common atmospheric properties, molecules of equal size, and molecules with similar physical and chemical attributes. Second, the project requires further technical research aimed at developing more effective high-fidelity pulse-shaping techniques, capable of delivering an accurate pulse shape at a target despite unfavorable atmospheric conditions. Finally, FASTREAD must prove the efficacy of its backscattered S/N by modulating the spectral content of its pulses, pulse sequence timing, and the intensity of each pulse. Nuclear vs. Biological Weapons A common misconception among technologists is that human beings reached the zenith of their destructive power with the advent of the hydrogen bomb. When comparing these weapons of mass destruction, one should keep in mind that the destruction wrought by a single nuclear weapon is inherently limited by the laws of physics, whereas a highly contagious biological weapon has neither a calculated blast radius nor an upper limit death-toll. At first glance, states seem to have typically abided by the rules of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) that categorically banned the production of biological weapons. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), on the other hand, appears to have been somewhat less successful. However, such perceptions can be misleading; the reality is that they are probably equally dysfunctional. The BWC has likely been violated more than the general public will ever know or want to know, but although the NPT is probably violated less often, its occasional infractions are highly publicized due to the compliance watchdog known as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the paladin of the NPT, capable of referring violators to the UN Security Council. The fact that the BWC lacks a counterpart institution to the IAEA may suggest a simple and reasonable explanation for the regimes regulatory weakness. One might go as far as to say that the evidence supports the efficacy of institutional oversight mechanisms in enforcing arms control regimes, but it would be slightly presumptuous to hastily make that conclusion as it fails to take one important factor into account. There is a logical reason why more states do not “go nuclear”, and it has very little to do with the NPT. Unless motivated by strategic concerns or nationalist impulses, countries like Uganda, Sri Lanka, or Chile refrain from developing nuclear arsenals because they would gain nothing (except international condemnation and notoriety) and it would cost them everything (politically and economically). Recent members of the nuclear club, like Pakistan and India, maneuvered themselves into a security dilemma destined to result in the mutual development of nuclear weapons, whereas South Africa geopolitically isolated itself to the point that it had nothing to lose by building the bomb. The new “club” members also had a technological head-start in their nuclear development: the US “Atoms for Peace” program. However, it is highly unlikely that a sub-state actor could obtain the materials and expertise necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons, especially when one considers that, even when supported by the resources available to an entire nation-state, developing nuclear weapons represents a political, financial, and especially technological feat of the highest order.
Terrorists are unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons when a cheaper and potentially more potent alternative exists. Not only are they technically daunting to manufacture, nuclear weapons generally require elaborate and cost-prohibitive delivery systems. Thus, for a suicidal sub-state actor intent on indiscriminately killing as many people as possible, a nuclear weapon is neither feasible nor desirable. Conclusion The anthrax attack on Capitol Hill in October 2001 provided stark evidence that biological weapons can allow a single individual with an unknown cause to attack and inflict significant damage on a nation-state. That particular attack may not have killed scores of people, but for only a few ounces of anthrax and postage stamp, the attacker managed to disrupt Congress for several months, ramp up operating costs for the USPS (and federal government) by imposing additional screening requirements, and incurred hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clean up costs. One could hardly ask for a more cost effective weapon to advance one’s political agenda. If the biological weapon enclosed in those envelopes were weaponized smallpox, a single envelope could have resulted in three times the casualties on September 11th alone. With the necessary expertise and equipment, increasing the virus’ pathogenicity would not be difficult, the complete smallpox genome can be found online in less than ten minutes. In 2001, the US DoD conducted an exercise code-named “Dark Winter”, simulating the effect of a smallpox attack against three US metropolitan areas. In less than two weeks, the disease infected 25 states and had already spread to 15 different countries in several epidemiological waves that left several hundred thousand Americans dead. The exercise was terminated prematurely when authorities calculated that a fourth generation of the disease would have resulted in the infection of 3 million people, killing at least a third of them. Biological weapons are capable of killing many more people than a nuclear attack. Given the current trend in biotechnology, small groups or perhaps even individuals may soon be able to take the sort of virus used in the “Dark Winter” simulation and increase its lethality three-fold. Traditional arms control regimes are unlikely to be efficient in preventing the covert development of biological weapons programs by either state or sub-state actors. The last effort to revise the 1975 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention was in 2002. A draft protocol was submitted but the United States rejected it out of hand, asserting that it did not strengthen existing arms control strategies, benefited potential proliferators, and compromised American national security as well as proprietary business information. An alternate approach to these antiquated, Cold War-era control strategies could involve categorizing potential threats based on their geographic origin, individually customizing the security resources dedicated to each category. For example, Tier I would include countries with biotech industries considered to be cutting-edge like the US, Japan, Europe, China, and India. Tier II would include countries with differing levels of international engagement and commitment to biological weapons conventions. Countries in this category would include those with significant agricultural biotech development like Brazil and Argentina, but would also include states with advanced R&D operations like South Africa, Egypt, Cuba, Israel, and South Korea. Tier III would include countries with relatively undeveloped biotech industries that are unlikely to bridge the economic and technological expanse between themselves and the Tier I & II countries in the foreseeable future.
Countries like Dubai, UAE, Kenya, and Thailand act more like tax shelters, labor reserves, or junior partners to multinational biotech companies. Finally, Tier IV countries would include failed-states like Somalia as well as countries with large and ungoverned territories that could potentially provide sanctuary for terrorist activity. The biotech revolution is already underway, but the risks and dangers which will surely accompany it have only just begun to reveal themselves. With the dawning of new technological eras come new and previously unimaginable threats, often taking the form of sociopolitical or military challenges. Dual-use emerging technologies could potentially provide militant organizations or groups of disaffected individuals with highly effective means of challenging state-level actors. The strategically disruptive effect this could have on the geopolitical environment merits serious consideration by policy-makers and the scientific community in general.
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