<<

. 11
( 61 .)



>>

a new species that can be effectively weaponized is extremely tricky with
many obstacles. Dangerous possibilities should be recognized, but possi-
bilities do not necessarily become reality.80
Bioscientists can awe nonexperts by describing emerging capabilities
even as other bioscientists, no less awe-inspiring, describe why those capa-
bilities will not work effectively. For anyone trying to grapple with the pol-
icy implications of emerging bioscience, these debates seem part of the
problem: scienti¬c vacillation complicates assessment of risks and the
ef¬cacy of safeguards. The level of scienti¬c discourse far exceeds most
policy makers™ knowledge or patience. Further obscuring how to identify
advancing science™s risks “ as well as identifying policies to reduce those
risks “ is the rush of scienti¬c change that opens corridors to new pro-
cesses and insights that, in turn, open exponentially more corridors. Even
if scienti¬c possibilities are not realistic today, they may be realistic by the
time a policy to address them is in place.
This section can only sketch the potentially dangerous applications
of emerging bioscience. Two concerns deserve emphasis. First, one rea-
son States have refrained from developing bioweapons is that military
leaders have not enthusiastically championed the prospect of deploying
them: pathogens are hard to use and unreliable for strictly military appli-
cations. Yet, emerging techniques could enable development of weapons
uniquely and precisely tailored to modern and highly speci¬c military
objectives.81 Second, enormous resources are being devoted to devel-
oping vaccines and antidotes (discussed in Chapter 6); rapid and effec-
tive use of medications will hopefully mitigate the harm of a bioattack.
49
METHODS OF BIOVIOLENCE

A sophisticated offender will likely try to circumvent them, and new tech-
niques will make it increasingly easy to do so.


Molecular Biology™s Emerging Risks
Molecular biology refers to the science of transferring, inserting, or deleting
individual genes, perhaps from a different species, into a species™ genetic
code thereby altering its properties. It is a commentary on the pace of
bioscience to say that molecular biological techniques are now pedestrian.
Less pedestrian is knowing how to control the outcome: moving genes is
trivial, but being assured of the outcome of a particular movement can be
trickier.

Modi¬cation of Weapons Agents
Perhaps the most urgent concern here is the potential to modify lethal
microbes to increase their lethality or physiological impact, make them
resistant to antibiotic treatments, enable them to evade existing vaccines,
or enhance their environmental stability and survivability. For example,
anthrax™s already high standing as a bioviolence agent would escalate if
it could be modi¬ed to be less vulnerable to current immunizations or
antibiotic treatments. Some known anthrax strains are resistant to con-
ventional antibiotic treatment “ extending that resistance would produce
a remarkably frightening agent. More speculative would be transferring
genes from highly contagious yet otherwise innocuous pathogens into the
anthrax genome thereby producing an anthrax that more readily spreads
among victims.
Scientists are currently able to generate antibiotic-resistant bacteria
to determine, for example, how readily those bacteria might become
resistant to a new treatment. Various bacterial agents such as plague or
tularemia could be altered to increase their lethality or to evade antibi-
otic treatment. Another “defect” of plague is that its especially lethal
pneumonic form is short-lived as an aerosol, and it is transmissible
only over short distances. Designing a plague bacterium that lives longer
in the air would increase its contagiousness. Until now, the develop-
ment of such pathogens has been limited because changing one char-
acteristic of a pathogen, for example contagiousness, could adversely
affect another characteristic, for example lethality. The genetic engineer-
ing that is required for antibiotic resistance might undercut the agent™s
pathogenicity; a genetically engineered agent that meets both of these
requirements might be unstable. Yet, it is becoming ever more realistic
50 BIOVIOLENCE: PREVENTING BIOLOGICAL TERROR AND CRIME

to manipulate a speci¬c agent characteristic without affecting other
attributes.
Immunologically altered pathogens could defeat standard identi-
¬cation, detection, and diagnostic methods.82 Indeed, there is some
precedent: State bioweapons programs, primarily of the former Soviet
Union, created truly frightening organisms decades before the genetic
engineering revolution. Both anthrax and plague were made immune to
several forms of antibiotics; anthrax was altered to disguise its presence
with enhanced ability to bypass the immune system; and genes caus-
ing unusual symptoms were inserted in the bacteria causing tularemia.
An interesting innovation was the insertion of “sun-tanning” genes that
enable pathogens to survive exposure to sunlight, which heightens their
effectiveness for midday attacks.83
The effects of natural diseases could be modi¬ed. Most natural dis-
eases have evolved to kill ineffectively lest they die out for lack of hosts,
but a laboratory-altered pathogen would have no such constraints. Even
if lethality is not the objective, pathogens could be designed to have dev-
astating consequences. Some diseases that cause only high fevers could
be induced to in¬‚ict more incapacitating neural damage. Viruses could
be engineered to produce pharmaceutically active compounds causing
a wide range of disabling effects from mild disorientation to severe psy-
chosis. Such viruses could be contagious and could persist for years in
the body (like herpes viruses and retroviruses) causing permanent, con-
tagious, mental or physical disability.84 An example of unintended results
occurred when British scientists created a hybrid pathogen by combin-
ing the viruses causing dengue fever and hepatitis C for the objective of
reducing the number of laboratory animals needed for testing a hepatitis
C vaccine. If the resulting pathogen had escaped through accidental or
intentional release, a new disease could have emerged with unique symp-
toms and unknown virulence.
Perhaps the single most important question today is whether the
Avian Flu virus could be genetically modi¬ed so that it is far more readily
transmissible person-to-person. This issue was recently (and ominously)
addressed by a panel of the National Academies of Science


[A]dvances in technology have led to the possibility that, even if a
new lethal in¬‚uenza A virus does not emerge in nature within the
near future, one could be arti¬cially generated through reverse genetic
engineering. . . . Although the knowledge, facilities, and ingenuity to carry
out this sort of experiment are beyond the abilities of most non-experts at
this time, this situation is likely to change over the next 5 to 10 years.85
51
METHODS OF BIOVIOLENCE


Improving Target Speci¬city
A most disturbing and increasingly realistic possibility is creation of an
ethnic-speci¬c bioweapon: a virus or bacteria that targets genetic mark-
ers belonging to a particular ethnic population.86 Until recently, it was
believed that there were no particular genetic sequences in a given ethnic
population or race that could be targeted to affect a particular biologi-
cal activity. That belief is unraveling as genetic sequencing becomes more
sophisticated and the human genome is better understood. In the opinion
of some experts, it will be possible in the near future to create a virus or
bacteria that targets only persons of speci¬c ancestry. An ethnic-speci¬c
bioweapon would ideally target certain genetic markers that are present in
close to 0 percent of the user™s population and anywhere over 10 percent of
the target population. Even if such a bioweapon affects only 10“20 percent
of a targeted population, the effects could be devastating.87


Synthetic Genomics
“Synthetic genomics” refers to an array of emerging technologies for
constructing novel bioengineered microbial genomes from standardized,
chemically produced short strands of synthetic DNA.88 Synthetic genomics
is part of a larger set of technologies that involve construction of new
proteins by assembling gene networks for speci¬cally designed tasks. Sci-
entists will someday build segments of desired genetic components with
their associated function that could then be programmed to execute par-
ticular processes. Although offering enormous potential for good, these
capabilities have some frightful implications.

Re-creation of Diseases
In the near future, synthetic genomics technology could enable re-creation
of an existing or eradicated virus having a completely known DNA
sequence. As mentioned, the polio virus was created in a laboratory using
its genetic sequence “ available on the internet “ and a series of commer-
cially available DNA sequences. As more pathogens are fully sequenced
and that information is made available, it will become increasingly pos-
sible to synthetically replicate any pathogen from scratch without going
through all the bother of painstaking collection from the environment or
in¬ltration of a secure laboratory. This would enable scientists to circum-
vent the control measures that limit access to agents that pose a uniquely
high risk of bioviolence.89
Moreover, re-creation of eradicated or highly con¬ned diseases would
enable their spread in regions where there is no natural immunity. For
52 BIOVIOLENCE: PREVENTING BIOLOGICAL TERROR AND CRIME

example, ebola could be released outside Africa. Through effective vac-
cination programs and worldwide cooperation, some of the great killer
viruses have been eradicated from the planet or at least substantially
con¬ned. Current advances in biotechnology, however, have made the
potential for resurrecting these historic killers a reality. Of course, if small-
pox were synthetically created, it would ¬nd humans unvaccinated and
with little residual immunity. Less spectacular but certainly devastat-
ing would be re-creation of long-eradicated plant and livestock diseases
which would now ¬nd a susceptible population that is severely lacking in
genetic diversity.
According to experts, the assembly of entire genomes is not a sim-
ple undertaking. Said Dr. Craig Venter: “The number of pathogens that
can be synthesized today is small and limited to those with sequenced
genomes. And for many of these the DNA is not infective on its own
and poses little actual threat. Our concern is what the technology might
enable decades from now.”90 A particularly grave threat is the re-creation
of the Spanish Flu in¬‚uenza strain that killed over forty million people in
1918“19. Through reverse genetic engineering techniques, the virus has
been fully re-created. Although the availability of the genome is tightly con-
trolled, there is nothing to say that malevolent persons could not copy the
process.

Synthetic Viruses
One of the most dramatic developments of genomics is the impending
capability to create synthetic living systems “ living in terms of being able
to replicate themselves using known life processes involving nucleic acids
and proteins. Scientists are actively working on the synthetic creation of
cellular life. Such agents could be useful to control pests such as weeds,
rodents, or insects; the lessons, however, could be transferable to con-
struction of weapons. Somewhat farther in the distance is the specter of
creating altogether new pathogens, most likely viruses. Scientists are now
able to change parts of a virus™ genetic material so that it can perform spe-
ci¬c functions. Although complicated, scientists can delete genes from a
cell line and thereby “precisely map which parts of the virus allow it to
get into cells, which are responsible for virulence, and what parts might
become a component of a vaccine.”91

RNA Inhibitors and Bioregulators
Technologies involving active molecules could also lead to poten-
tial weapons capabilities. RNA interference (RNAi) involves destroying
53
METHODS OF BIOVIOLENCE

sequence-speci¬c RNA with small molecules. These emerging technolo-
gies hold enormous promise for treatments that impede the pathway of
disease but might also open potential for new malevolent applications.92
Bioregulators are small organic compounds that modify body systems
and could enhance targeted delivery technologies. Some experts are con-
cerned that new weapons could be aimed at the immune, neurological, and
neuroendocrine systems. Again, according to the National Academies of
Science,

The threat spectrum is broad and evolving “ in some ways predictably,
in other ways unexpectedly. The viruses, microbes, and toxins listed as
“select agents” are just one aspect of the continually changing, complex
threat landscape. In the future, genetic engineering and other technolo-
gies may lead to the development of pathogenic organisms with unique,
unpredictable characteristics . . . 93


Nanotechnologies
Nanotechnology, the science of building things in a size range from 1 to
100 billionths of a meter, enables constructing objects from their most
basic materials thereby offering an unprecedented degree of precision and
control over the ¬nal product. Nanotechnology is not a life science and is
not limited to existing natural systems. Yet, biotechnology can be viewed as
a subset of nanotechnology; biotechnology is “nature™s nanotechnology.”
Some experts warn that misuse of nanotechnology could lead to hor-
ri¬cally effective weapons, most of which have nothing to do with biovi-
olence. Yet, the potential combination of nanotechnology with emerg-
ing bioscience raises new potential for in¬‚icting harm “ albeit a poten-
tial that is still somewhat on the horizon. Nanotechnology designed to
deliver medicines in a more effective and targeted fashion could also be
used to deliver disease agents into a person™s system. As an example, a
nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting
toxins into unprotected humans could carry lethal doses of botulinum.
As many as ¬fty billion toxin-carrying devices “ theoretically enough to
kill every human on earth many times over “ could be packed into a single
suitcase. Moreover, although far on the scienti¬c horizon, nanotechnology
research is exploring processes of self-replication.
This is most certainly not the place to explore the social and strategic
implications of nanotechnology, yet it is worth contemplating the impli-
cations of “merging” advances in nanotechnology with advances in more
traditional biosciences. Consider the warning offered by Bill Joy, cofounder
54 BIOVIOLENCE: PREVENTING BIOLOGICAL TERROR AND CRIME

and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems in an often cited article in Wired
magazine:

Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses . . . “ such devices can
be built to be selectively destructive, affecting, for example, only a certain
geographical area or a group of people who are genetically distinct. . . . The
21st -century technologies “ genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics “ are
so powerful that they spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.
Most dangerously, for the ¬rst time, these accidents and abuses are widely
within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large
facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.
Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of
knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely
ampli¬ed by the power of self-replication.94
3 Who Did Bioviolence? Who Wants
To Do It?




The subject of bioviolence inevitably leads to the question: who would do
such a repulsive thing? Some experts argue that terrorists and rogue States
are not interested in bioviolence “ the threat might therefore be overblown.
Hopefully, they are correct. An enormous amount of evidence, however,
suggests they are wrong.

<<

. 11
( 61 .)



>>