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Weaponizing Science: Bioterrorism

If you present a shiny red button to a toddler, even a humongous “do not press” sign on it would do little to deter a curious 2 year old. But what about fully grown adults governing our nations - they surely won’t, right? Unfortunately, the countless wars humans have witnessed make the answer obvious.

Keeping this in mind, there has been a recent growth in the biodefense market, especially because of a certain pandemic. According to the market research company IMARC’s report, the 2020 market value of the global biodefense market was 12.7 billion USD, explaining that the growing threat of bioterrorism was one of the reasons for it. So, what are these firms, labs, governments preparing for?

The beginning of Biowarfare and the origins of Bioweapons

Back in the day, during the Anatolian war (1320–1318 BC), warring parties purposely infected each other with the plague (tularemia in this case) by sending in innocent looking infected rams and other sorts of animals into the opposing camps. Not an attack from the gods as it was popularly believed, this is arguably the first account of biowarfare in our history. From here on, pestilence became humanity’s weapon.

Skipping to the Medieval era, people were less subtle and more in your face with their bioweaponry. Interestingly, some documents from 1346-1348 AD, point to the Mongols being the cause of the Black Plague in Europe. Gabriele de Mussi’s account detailed how Mongol forces found diseased corpses far better ammunition for their trebuchets against the Genoese at the Siege of Caffa. In fact, it was a common practice to hurl infected dead bodies at the enemy so that disease spreads and ends all competition.

So what exactly is a bioweapon? And how does it relate to biowarfare? Well, just like the nuclear and radiological kind, bioweapons are categorized as “WMD” - Weapons of Mass Destruction, making them an official threat to national security.

Bioweapon is a general term for a system of weapons that uses biological warfare agents. These agents could be toxins that are either extracted from plants and animals or are synthetically made. They could also be disease causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, rickettsia and viruses. The lethality of these weapons (especially the ones which use pathogens) is determined by the infectiousness, the time of incubation and the possible existence of a cure/antidote/vaccine.

But unlike nuclear weapons that destroy everything in sight and beyond, bioweapons stealthily tear down an organism inside out. We won’t usually know what we’ve been hit with until symptoms start to appear. This is because each agent’s effectiveness also depends on the delivery mode. Take Francisella tularensis (the pathogen that causes tularemia) for example, it is so infectious that just being near an exposed container of it can cause casualties.

20th century’s game with death

With the technological advancements of the 20th century, these weapons have only gotten more lethal. On 25 March 1975, the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, put into force the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It was a treaty that prohibited the “development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production” of biological weapons, the substances used to make them, and the equipment to transport them. The 183 state-parties that constitute the members of this treaty, have yet to officially violate the clauses but there has been growing concern over an inevitable biowar.

The World Wars had already shown the scale of destruction that biowarfare brings. This is exactly why the first treaty that banned bioweapons - Geneva 1925 Protocol (their ban was upheld by the BWC), was signed. After the First World War, France was insecure about its position with respect to Germany, and believed that creating a bioweapons programme to combat the country would be a good way to start a post-war relationship.

Often, scientists’ roles are questioned in these matters - what leads one to contribute to such destruction? Auguste Trillat, the french chemist turned director of France’s bioweapons programme clearly wasn’t phased by such questions. France even managed to find a loophole in the Geneva Protocol by describing their bioweapons use only as a defensive technique. This caused a domino effect in all the countries and thus, bioweapons again became a major threat. In Churchill’s Britain, Paul Fildes, a microbiologist heading their bioweapons project at Porton Down, happily developed an anthrax bomb. One of the most lethal biological weapons yet, anthrax has since been a favourite of bioterrorists. The most recent bioterrorism act of 2001 in America involved this very substance, where letters laced with anthrax spores resulted in 5 deaths and 17 infections.

Changing the game with Gene Editing

Bioweapons on their own are deadly enough, but humans have the tendency to place a self-destruct button on their species time and time again. Usually, scientists make new inventions to do good for humanity or the world but these good intentions often pave the road to doom. In 2011, geneticists managed to successfully carry out a gene-drive where they altered the genes of a mosquito as part of their project to eliminate disease-causing agents. They basically sped up evolution. A breakthrough on its own, it still raised concerns in the scientific community. This was mostly because of the new technique of gene-editing that is being used - CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This new technology has made gene-editing mainstream because of its low-cost and relatively easier to use nature plus the free availability of information on the internet adds to the whole case, enabling perhaps even backyard scientists to create a potential weapon of mass destruction.

If we could edit our own DNA to eliminate predispositions to certain conditions or diseases, then what else could we do? Would humans, in this sense, become biological weapons themselves? Or be wiped out by engineered mutations? It might come as a surprise (or not) that China is allegedly doing just that! The United States’ Director of Intelligence claimed that they have reason to believe that China is carrying out genome editing of their soldiers to enhance their capabilities. Though, when countries like the US and Russia try to accuse China, it seems almost hypocritical when taking into account the Cold War fiasco, where it was these two countries that accumulated the most bioweapons.

We know malignant forces exist in our world, that are in possession of highly destructive biological weapons; a bad combination. During the Second World War, Japan learned too late, when they created a plague and released it in China that was responsible for killing 10,000 people in the country but also 1700 people from Japan’s own troops. Seems like common sense to not kill your own people, but this is the current reality, because no country at this moment seems to be prepared for such a magnitude of indestructible bioweapons. Nor do they have realistic “biodefense” systems in place.

So it’s kind of like a metaphorical and a literal ticking time-bomb; who’s going to be the first to unleash the plague that will kill us? Or will it be an accidental leak (a freakishly common occurrence) or an underestimated attack, that would be the end of humanity?

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