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Biotech advances hold terrifying possibilities for germ warfare

Biotech advances hold terrifying possibilities for germ warfare

Russ Middaugh has a secret.

The pharmaceutical chemist knows how to preserve the potency of botulinum toxin - the stuff of botox that makes Hollywood brows wrinkle-resistant, that stills muscle spasms and that could ferment a terrorist's brew.

But he is unsure whether he'll submit to scientific journals a paper he's written on his pathogen know-how. There is worry that research might serve as a how-to for bad guys.

"Are we going to be providing material for a weapon? We have to think about that," said Middaugh, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas. "I'm not superconcerned about that. But I don't want to be naive either."

Although the civilized world has long rejected germ warfare, biotechnology is busting out all over with new ways of tinkering with organs and cells and even DNA. The aim of nearly all the research, most by private companies or academics, is to conjure up medical miracles unimagined a generation ago.

Those same biotechnology advances - such as Middaugh's improved understanding of botulinum - could double for terrorists and militaries alike.

Consequently, the scientific breakthroughs pose dilemmas about which research makes us safer and which makes us more vulnerable, and how to foster one without advancing the other. What's more, experts struggle to interpret weapons treaties written with mustard gas and the plague in mind while laboratories build microscopic nanomachines and substances that toy with specific genes.

Consider an article in a recent issue of Military Review, a journal published by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth that solicits strategy from a range of international sources. In it, two members of the Chinese army fantasize about what biotechnology might bring to the battlefield:

- Supersmall bullets that don't tear at tissue, but rather target specific organs, proteins, cells or genes.

- Substances so precisely genetically engineered that if unleashed on a village, they would harm only one person - say, Osama bin Laden.

- The so-called ethnic bullet - biological menaces tailored to kill only members of a certain clan or race.

- Disease-inducing weapons whose effects might be easily reversed - but with an antidote only the weapon maker would possess. A village or city could be faced with the prospect of submission and health or resistance and death.

- Genetic damage caused by remotely fired ultraviolet, radio or electromagnetic waves.

- Substances that can make people hopelessly clumsy, painfully forgetful or pitifully docile.

"Biotechnological weapons can cause destruction that is both more powerful and more civilized than that caused by conventional killing methods like gunpowder or nuclear weapons," wrote Guo Ji-wei and Yang Xue-sen.

"A military attack, therefore, might wound an enemy's genes, proteins, cells, tissues and organs, causing more damage than conventional weapons could," wrote the two men, one assigned to the Chinese Third Military Medical University and the other to Southwest Hospital in Chongqing. "However, such devastating nonlethal effects will require us to pacify the enemy through postwar reconstruction efforts and hatred control."

They argue that such biotechnology is not outlawed germ warfare, because it would not unleash random, wide-scale carnage. Rather, they said it would focus on a specific enemy or behavior. The two men suggested such gee-whiz weapons would be more precise and humane.

Among weapons and biotechnology experts, the Chinese authors' predictions of specific breakthroughs seem fanciful for the near future.

Take the ethnic weapons, for example. Geneticists find greater difference from one Frenchman to the next than between Frenchmen in general and Egyptians or Japanese. So singling out an ethnic group might simply prove too complex.

Yet their general theories are not new, nor seen as wildly radical.

Stanford University biologist and physicist Steven Block wrote in the late 1990s of gene therapy as a weapon. He speculated about stealth viruses that could linger in the body until called to kill. He imagined designer diseases that "instruct the cells in our body to commit suicide."

"Progress in biomedical science inevitably has a dark side," Block wrote in his landmark treatise "Living Nightmares." Biological weapons, he wrote, "do not require rare materials, such as enriched uranium or plutonium. They do not require rare finances: development and production are comparatively inexpensive. They do not require rare knowledge: Most of the techniques involved are straightforward, well-documented, and in the public domain. ... Inevitably, someone, somewhere, sometime seems bound to try something.

"So, for better or worse," Block wrote, "genomics will change our world."

In 2003, a National Academies of Sciences report suggested research restrictions against altering microbes to pump up their deadliness or virulence, to make them more contagious or more resistant to drugs, or to mask their detection.

Yet since studying a hardier bug can teach scientists how to slay the toughest infections, researchers are tempted to push the limits.

"It's highly technical about what the definition of 'more virulent' is," said Samuel Miller, a biochemist at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases. "It becomes controversial."

Before the DNA sequence of the influenza strain that killed 50 million people in 1918 was made public earlier this fall, the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity first had to weigh the odds of terrorists or rogue governments exploiting the information.

Some weapons experts said they were troubled that the tone of the Chinese scientists in their Military Review article glorified biotech weaponry.

"The article is really about the use of non-lethal biological weapons instead of the lethal variety," said Christian Enemark of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University. Both are banned by the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, he said.

In fact, specialists say that with biotechnology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology, the differences between a biological weapon and a chemical weapon become blurred. The United States has for decades signed on to treaties that bar both. (Eventually unfounded suspicions that Saddam Hussein was making chemical and biological weapons - alongside a nuclear program - drove the call for the American occupation of Iraq.)

A Defense Department study of compliance with international arms treaties recently suggested "serious concerns about the nature" of North Korea's biological weapons-related activities, and similar worries that biological weapons efforts in Iran are "embedded within (its) extensive biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries."

In 2004 the federal government allocated US$5.6 billion to Project BioShield to gird the nation's defenses against biological, chemical and nuclear threats. Of that, nearly US$1 billion was earmarked for stockpiling 75 million anthrax inoculations. There have been problems, however, in finding enough vaccine.

Still, critics say that even those billions are dwarfed by private research and that the U.S. military risks being left out of the mainstream of developments in biotechnology - and eventually could be unable to defend against it.

The Defense Advanced Projects Agency has explored its benefits, such as armor improved by the right proteins or commandos juiced by performance-enhancing drugs.

"Think of what happens when you put a baseball player on steroids," said James Carafano, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Then imagine what soldiers could do who can stay awake for 72 hours and maintain all their mental faculties."

Controversy comes in designing new ways to hurt people. Jonathan Tucker, an arms proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, criticized the Bush administration for not more aggressively tightening arms treaties. He said the Pentagon's desire to nurture its own budding nonlethal weapons, used for issues such as crowd control, discourage it from pressing the issue.

"We should be reinforcing the norm," Tucker said, "that this kind of thing is wrong." Biotech military ideas

Among the ways biotechnology could be used to help troops or target enemies:

Miracles for battlefield medicine in the form of artificial skin, limb regeneration, artificial blood, boosted immunities from new vaccines, the ability to counteract shock.

Potential for performance enhancers could make soldiers stronger, give them more stamina, improve their vision, allow for better battlefield awareness and increase their abilities to concentrate while carrying lighter, more powerful weapons.

Chemical or biological weapons could be handled more safely, increasing the chances that terrorist or rogue governments might use them, especially binary weapons that only become lethal when two substances are mixed together.

Substances designed to kill only certain ethnic groups or even specific individuals.

Release of diseases with virtual on/off switches, which only the aggressor could control - perhaps with a chemical antidote.

Weapons, maybe launched with sprays of miniature bullets, maybe with gases, that attack specific organs or cells, or that trigger psychological effects.

Sleeper weapons that infect a victim with a fatal or crippling condition that isn't apparent until long after the attack, and maybe only after the attacker activates a second stimulant.

Diseases designed to resist antibiotics or other treatments, to avoid detection by conventional medical tests, or to be especially contagious.

Updated : 2022-01-18 09:32 GMT+08:00