by The Sunshine Project / Background Paper #12 –
Genetic Engineering and Biological Weapons — November 2003
Emerging diseases are often discussed as a global public health threat; but the threat of these diseases is paralleled by another, that posed by emerging technologies. Rapid developments in biotechnology, genetics and genomics pose a variety of environmental, ethical, political, and social questions. And because they open up tremendous new possibilities for biological warfare, these technological developments have grave implications for peace and security.
In this report, we give a systematic overview of the impact of biotechnology on biological weapons (BW) development, focussing on existing technologies and recent discoveries whose implications are still poorly understood. Much of what we present may sound like science fiction, but in fact it is far more science than fiction – and in some cases it is already a reality. The most frightening developments can currently be witnessed in the US, where new technology is being exploited to create new types of biological and biochemical weapons, including material degrading microorganisms and psychoactive chemicals, raising the spectre of a new biological and chemical arms race.
Genetic engineering can contribute to offensive BW programs in a variety of ways. With genetic manipulation, classical biowarfare agents such as anthrax or plague may be made more efficient weapons. Barriers to access to agents such as smallpox, Ebola or the Spanish flu are being lowered by genetic and genomic techniques.
Using Food as a Bioweapon
Completely new types of weapons are also becoming possible, including the use of food crops as tools for biological warfare. Even ethnically specific weapons, hitherto thought to be impossible, have become a real possibility. We present data here showing that ethnic specific genetic sequences do exist in considerable high numbers.
Alarmed by the rapidly increasing technical possibilities, the International Committee of the Red Cross recently appealed to governments to take concrete steps to avert the hostile use of biotechnology. A broad array of political measures will be needed to counter the threat of hostile exploitation of biotechnology.
Ways to Strengthen the Bioweapons Convention
First and foremost, the Biological Weapons Convention needs to be strengthened through multilaterally agreed, legally binding verification measures. In addition, three immediate steps are of specific importance:
• All projects that violate the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions must be immediately abandoned, specifically development of so-called “non-lethal” chemical weapons, anti-material biowarfare agents, and fungi for the war on drugs. Failure to do so will encourage other countries to follow suit with R & D projects on biotechnological weapons, leading to an unraveling of two key disarmament treaties.
?• There is an urgent need to ensure that governments restrict themselves and ensure maximum transparency in their biodefense programs, to prevent a race for offensive capabilities under cover of defense. All governments should adopt the ‘Government Undertaking on Biodefense Programs’, recently brought forward by the Sunshine Project. It contains, among others, a provision that “biodefense programs will not, for any purpose, utilize or construct, including single-gene changes, novel biological agents with an enhanced offensive potential” such as treatment resistance, environmental stability, or enhanced pathogenicity.
• For some particularly dangerous technologies, restrictions on research are required. These research prohibitions, which are an inherently more effective approach than imposing limits on publication, should apply in specific fields that (a) may easily be abused for hostile purposes, (b) where no effective global arms control or non-proliferation efforts are presently feasible, and (c) where other technical avenues to reach the same peaceful scientific goal are available.
Biological arms control is currently in one of its worst crisis since before the signing of the Bioweapons Convention (BWC) in 1972. Efforts to strengthen the BWC through comprehensive declaration and verification measures failed in 2001 due to US resistance. At the same time, the US has massively expanded its biodefense program and embarked on the exploitation of biotechnology for weapons development.
Mark Wheelis and Malcolm Dando, biologists and biological weapons experts, recently warned that “the US may already be plunging recklessly forward into the military applications of biotechnology, whose legacy, we predict, will be as troubling to our children as is our parents’ nuclear legacy to us” (Wheelis & Dando 2002).
Wheelis and Dando further argue the imminent danger of a new biological arms race: “This US exploration of the utility of biotech for bioweapons development is unwise, for the rest of the world will be obliged to follow suit. In its rush to stay ahead technologically, the United States runs the risk of leading the world down a path toward much-reduced security” (Wheelis & Dando 2003). We concur and here present further discussion of specific technologies and civilian and military research that endangers security.
‘Expanding Options’ for Deploying Bioweapons
The danger that such experiments in biotechnology and biomedicine will lower the threshold for a BW use is also seen by government researchers: “The wide range of effects that can be designed into [biowarfare] agents will expand options for [their] employment significantly and ultimately may decrease the current threshold for use of biological warfare… advances in biotechnology research may lead to a coming revolution in BW development for technologically proficient rogue nations…” The authors — from the US Defense Intelligence Agency — fail to mention that the threshold is most obviously and aggressively being lowered by the US itself.
Alarmed by the failure of the BWC Verification Protocol, rapidly increasing technical possibilities, and the renewed interest in biological warfare capabilities, the International Committee of the Red Cross recently issued an appeal to all political and military authorities “to work together to subject potentially dangerous biotechnology to effective controls.” It continues: “We urge you to consider the threshold at which we all stand and to remember our common humanity.”
This dramatic appeal is based on the inescapable facts that the revolution in biotechnology does indeed lead to a dramatically increased biowarfare risk and that governments have achieved little in reigning in these risks.
Whereas thirty years ago, biotechnology was restricted to a small number of advanced research laboratories, today it is ubiquitous This global distribution of modern biotechnology has led to a worldwide availability of knowledge and facilities useful in biowarfare programs. In some countries, even high school students now conduct experiments in genetic engineering. High-tech facilities for the production of vaccines, single-cell-protein or biocontrol agents are widely distributed and will continue to spread as biotechnology or, at least, certain biotechnologies, find commercial uses in a larger number of markets.
Genetic Engineering Can Create More Deadly Threats
Within the more generalized spread of biotechnology, there are specific new applications that are particularly troublesome. A relatively clear-cut problem is the genetic engineering of classical biowarfare agents to make them more effective. But new genetic and genomic techniques provide for additional, new, warfare possibilities. Once eradicated, viruses such as smallpox or the deadly 1918 influenza virus (which killed 20-40 million people in a global epidemic) may now be synthesised in the laboratory. Genetically engineered crops and insects can be used for the production – and secret delivery – of harmful biological substances and, in human genomics, even ethnically specific biological weapons are becoming a real possibility.
The following chapters give a systematic overview on these issues – some of the examples are already a reality, others are hypothetical in the sense that they have not, to our knowledge, been utilized for hostile purposes; but the science behind them is very real.
II Single Gene Transfer and Similar Genetic, Engineering of BW Agents
III Emerging Technologies I: Novel infectious agents, Pathogenicity factors
IV Emerging Technologies II: Synthesis of biowarfare agents, Artificial poliovirus, Another route to smallpox, Recreating the Spanish flu
V Emerging Technologies III: New types of weapons, Food Weapons, Terminator Technology, Insect fighters
VI Ethnic specific biological weapons, Techniques to translate genetic sequence into a weapons effect, Ethnic specific genetic markers
VII Conclusions and recommendations
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