The nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea have been a primary concern to world security for more than a decade. But there is another significant worldwide threat to consider — bioweapons. And with the advent of genetic editing — where the DNA or RNA of a virus or bacteria can be modified to form a deadly weapon — the terrorist arsenal of weapons could be about to change for the worse.
Biological agents have long been a concern for national security. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to five news media outlets and two Senate offices, killing five people and infecting 17. That case led to a focus on anthrax as a weapon and, at first, to fears that Al Qaida, Iraq or another foreign enemy was behind the anthrax attacks.
The threat of further “anthrax letters” or a wider foreign attack never materialized, however. And in fact, as I wrote in “False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” there are reasons that an anthrax threat is limited, beginning with the fact that the bacteria is not contagious. Not only that, but a warhead containing anthrax would destroy the bacteria on impact because of the amount of heat released in the explosion. And if anthrax was spread by terrorists on the ground, there is an anthrax vaccine which could be utilized to help control an outbreak as well as the resulting public fear.
Smallpox, despite being eradicated in the natural world, is a potential bioweapon which poses a much greater concern than anthrax. It is contagious, could be disseminated widely in an aerosolized form, and although a smallpox vaccine exists, it has not been utilized since the 1970s so no immunity remains. If there were a smallpox outbreak, in addition to renewed vaccinations, isolation of sick individuals would be key.
Smallpox was first infamously used as a biological weapon back in 1763, when British troops allegedly gave contaminated blankets to Native American Indians in order to cause an epidemic. More than half of affected tribes were killed as a result, according to some historical accounts. These days, the only remaining smallpox exists at the CDC in Atlanta and at the Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology. There is some concern about how safe the Russian facility is from terrorists.
But the greatest concern when it comes to potential bioweapons involves not naturally occurring viruses or bacteria but today’s advances in bioengineering. The Department of Defense has a growing interest in this area and last year authorized an extensive report by the National Academy of Sciences.
There are two areas of greatest worry, the first being that small sequences of DNA are available for purchase and could be fashioned into novel viruses or bacteria working from scratch in a laboratory.
Perhaps even more potentially problematic is the emergence and perfection of genetic editing tools, especially CRISPR CAS-9. This technology focuses on altering aberrant genetic sequences that cause disease and may lead to effective treatments for everything from cancer to bolstering immune defense against viruses. On the other hand, the technology could be misused to alter a virus like the flu so that it is able to evade existing vaccines or anti-viral treatments.
A pandemic strain of flu or another virus could theoretically be created using CRISPR CAS-9, which could rifle through a population lacking immunity and kill millions. Most terrorists lack the sophistication or scientific skill to work with genetic editors, but a country like China, which lacks regulation to restrict CRISPR CAS-9, could easily develop a dangerous new viral strain which is then stolen and employed by terrorists. The Chinese Health Ministry has recently issued regulations intended to restrict the use of gene editing in humans, but I am not optimistic that they will be effective.
Despite billions of dollars spent on Bio Watch and Bio Shield — programs put in place by the U.S. government after the 9/11 attacks — there is no assurance that a biological attack isn’t feasible or portentous, especially with the development of new technologies.