By Lauren Davis

After the First World War, many nations realized that the horrors of chemical warfare foreshadowed the destruction that modern biological weapons might some day produce. Forty-four countries signed the Geneva Protocol of 1925, a treaty prohibiting the first use — though not the production — of biological armaments. Seventy-seven years later, both biological and non-biological weapons of mass destruction are both deadlier and more available. Any news of their production is followed by condemnation and regret — but the competition between nations to produce and acquire ever more powerful weapons continues.

Whereas the Geneva Protocol of 1925 only forbids the first use of biological weapons, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), ratified by 143 countries, outlawed the development, production and possession of biological weapons. However, the treaty contained no provisions for verification, and a clause permitted the development and production of otherwise illicit biological agents for “defensive, prophylactic, and peaceful” purposes. Many consider this to be a gaping loophole, as peaceful or defensive intentions can be claimed in the manufacture of any agent in small quantities.

Cold War thinking suggests that any weapon can and should be trumped by a larger, more effective version of itself. However, while early biological weapons had to be selected, cultivated, and bred for maximum virulence, they differed from nuclear warheads in that they were not built from scratch. Today, the ability of scientists to manipulate the genetic material of bacteria and viruses is constantly increasing. As researchers map out bacterial genomes, they will be able to design hybrid “super bugs”, selecting genes that would cause agents to induce particular symptoms or possess a resistance to common treatments. Already we can hybridize pathogens, as well as engineer bacteria to produce organic chemicals otherwise difficult to manufacture. Such new technologies can have legitimate medical uses, including the development of vaccines and diagnostic systems — but though they have medical potential, the threat they pose to the public has not been fully comprehended.

Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology allows scientists to transfer DNA, and with it genetic characteristics, from one organism to another. The potential use of this technology in the development of biological weapons is self-evident. A microbiologist could transfer desired characteristics such as virulence, resilience and ease of infection, between bacteria and viruses to create a hybrid that would be a more effective weapon than naturally occurring organisms. One of the most chilling examples of this is the Soviet Union’s Cold War era attempt to combine smallpox and ebola, joining the contagiousness of the former with the deadliness of the latter.

Efforts to map bacterial and viral genomes add to the capabilities of rDNA technology. The applications are varied. On the positive side, mapping microbial genomes can make it easier to identify bacterial and viral agents with a DNA test, so increasing the speed and efficiency with which a patient can be treated. A firmer understanding of the genetics of pathogens might also help the development of more effective vaccines and treatments. Unfortunately, a better understanding of these genomes also facilitates the use of rDNA technology to produce more sophisticated pathogens. The more scientists know about the genetics of pathogens, the more precisely they are able to select appropriate characteristics.

There has been some question of whether creating new pathogens could have a defensive use. American advocates claim that the United States needs them to develop vaccines and treatments in the event of a biological attack. However, this claim only justifies the development of pre-existing pathogens which the United States suspects an enemy might use. If scientists do not know precisely what pathogen may be used — and how it was created — the defensive development of novel pathogens is a shot in the dark, an impossible guess at what others might be engineering.

Recombinant DNA technology has long been used to insert genes that induce bacteria to produce specific proteins. Pharmaceutical companies have long used this process to manufacture human proteins such as insulin and interleukin, but it is also used by researchers to manufacture biological toxins for supposedly defensive research. The danger of such convenient manufacture, however, is that it simultaneously gives manufacturers the ability to stockpile these toxins for use as a weapon.
Opponents of biowarfare are naturally worried about the release, intentional or inadvertent, of weaponized biological agents. Such a release would be particularly serious if it involved genetically engineered agents. There would likely be no known vaccine or treatment against a novel pathogen, and even if there were the treatment would probably not be readily available, especially if the agent was released suddenly or accidentally. Even the most basic information about the pathogen — its nature and the symptoms it elicits — would not be readily available, making misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatments probable. Moreover, there is danger that a released pathogen would fit itself into the ecosystem so that it would remain in the environment until the ecosystem changes in major ways. Such an agent would continue to pose a threat long after its release.

The deliberate use of a biological weapon, especially one designed for maximum virulence, also has the potential to affect the group responsible for its release. It is in the nature of pathogens not to confine themselves to a target population; at risk is anyone who comes into contact with the target population, and anyone who comes into contact with them, and so on. Furthermore, biological agents can enter the environment without being deliberately deployed. Not only could an aggressor or saboteur release the agents deliberately, but an accident could infect a researcher or allow an agent to escape without anyone knowing. Residents of nations that research and stockpile biological weapons are at great risk.

The Soviet biological weapons program is a morbidly eloquent testament to the dangers of weapons research. Numerous researchers accidentally infected themselves while studying weaponized agents, including brucellosis and the Marburg virus. The accidental escape of anthrax spores from a weapons factory into the Soviet town of Sverdlovsk in 1979 killed as many as 105 civilians. A small outbreak of smallpox in 1971, caused by smallpox weapon tests over the Aral sea, killed a woman and two children. Fortunately, all these incidents were contained, but the possibility of a full-blown biological disaster is real. Even peaceful medical research has proven hazardous. Just last year, two US microbiologists died from the very strains of meningitis bacteria they were studying, and both the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense perform research on far more deadly pathogens.

What can be done to reduce the threat posed by biological weapon production and research? A strengthening of, and strict adherence to, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention would help to ensure that research on the most hazardous biological agents is performed only for medical reasons and limited to truly defensive purposes. Unfortunately, the current Bush administration has resisted efforts to empower the BTWC. The United States is the only signatory to reject a draft proposal, negotiated internationally for six years and backed by the Clinton administration, which would establish protocols for verification and enforcement of the treaty’s accords. The Bush administration has argued that the protocols would be ineffective, and insists that proposed international inspections of bio-defense installations and private pharmaceutical facilities would jeopardize military security and infringe upon commercial confidentiality. The Bush administration’s position has provoked international condemnation and skepticism from critics, who point to the $17.8 million donated by the pharmaceutical industry to Bush’s presidential campaign, along with evidence of America’s BTWC violations. Although it has claimed to be working on a more effective alternative to the rejected draft, the Bush administration has so far put forth only vague plans to control exports of sophisticated germ-producing equipment — a stance derided by experts, given the relative ease with which powerful biological weapons can be manufactured.

Officially, of course, the United States has no biological weapons program, but evidence has emerged that last fall’s anthrax mailings probably utilized a government-developed strain. This contradicts not only the government’s previous denials, but calls into question the basic assumption that a biological weapons program would be conducted in a responsible manner. Numerous military insiders have reported that the Department of Defense (DOD) and Central Intelligence Agency have covered up projects and mishaps at the DOD’s main biological research facility at Fort Detrick, MD. Such cover-ups allowed the DOD to escape accountability for the research itself and for the haphazard manner in which it has been conducted.

A governmental commitment to both the letter and spirit of the BTWC, along with increased transparency and the acceptance of responsible oversight, would limit US biological weapons research and enhance safeguards against the pathogens. If people are fully aware of potential horrors
concealed within the walls of facilities like Fort Detrick, and the terrible consequences of their release, they will be better able to protect themselves. In 1999, residents of eastern Long Island proved this to be possible when a group of communities successfully protested the construction of a facility on nearby Plum Island where the deadliest class of pathogens were to be tested. Similar tactics could be used to ensure that pathogens and toxins are not released in open-air tests, that individuals are thoroughly searched prior to entering and exiting laboratories, that pathogens are contained and handled so as to reduce chances of their release into the environment. Hopefully, ongoing attention could make research on hazardous biological materials safer.

Before such public oversight can take place, however, the widely accepted thinking about biological weapons needs to change. Because biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction, people often regard them as they once viewed nuclear weapons: as a deterrent. Nuclear weapons often have been presented as a safeguard against first-strike nuclear attacks, the theory being that an aggressor will not attack if it knows its target will respond in kind. Supporters of biological weapons development argue that biological weapons can also function preventatively, and must therefore be deveoped in secret so that enemy nations would not have an opportunity to produce a treatment or vaccine. This posture is even less reassuring than faith in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

As was mentioned before, biological weapons do not require the material and scientific sophistication of nuclear weapons production. They can be cultured from naturally occurring sources or purchased or stolen from a weapons facility. As a result, they are accessible not only to nations that possess such weapons facilities, but also to independent entities with no national ties who might not be readily detectable, and who would not be an easy target.

Because of the relatively ready availability and ease of culture of infectious organisms, secrecy is of little benefit when it comes to biodefense. On the contrary, more information and openness is needed to combat the threat of a biological attack or disaster. Effort would best be focused on educating medical personnel in how to respond to an outbreak, what pathogens are likely to be involved, how to recognize the symptoms, and how to properly quarantine and treat patients. Similarly, the United States should redirect resources saved by dismantling biological weapons programs to rigidly controlled development of treatments and vaccines, as well as development of the health care infrastructure required for their effective delivery. After all, infectious diseases cannot be fought with fire, only with foresight and trained personnel.

Lauren Davis is a Bioethics major at Brown University. She recently concluded an internship at the Council for Responsible Genetics.

GeneWatch: Current Issue
Lobbying and propaganda around gene drive technologies threaten to erode public trust in science. By Christophe Bo√ęte
Review of the film A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. By Jaydee Hanson
Book review: Making Sense of Genes by Kostas Kampourakis. By Stuart A. Newman
GeneWatch: Archives