In his new book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, a member of the Center’s Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons, observes that “biological weapons are the least well understood of the WMD” and that “use of terms such as WMD and ‘chem-bio’ has hindered our understanding of the international security implications of biological weapons.”
Below are three concepts that illustrate the current challenge presented by biological weapons (BW)…
1. “The dual use dilemma is absolute.” – Kathryn Nixdorff in Verifying Treaty Compliance: Limiting Weapons of Mass Destruction and Monitoring Kyoto Protocol Provisions
At an AAAS panel discussion last week, Senior Bio Advisor of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center, Dr. Lawrence Kerr, explained that all life science research is dual-use by nature. The very same technologies, techniques, and studies designed to create pharmaceuticals, for instance, can be employed nefariously to manipulate biological agents (pathogens and toxins) and identify exploitable vulnerabilities in the human body.
Dr. Koblentz takes this concept a step further, arguing that the biological dilemma is more accurately described as “multiuse”:
In [Living Weapons], the term “multiuse” is used to highlight the distinct but overlapping applications of biotechnology in civilian, defensive, and offensive domains. The old distinction between military and civilian applications of biological and biotechnology has become more blurred in recent years as more civilian institutions become engaged in defensive research and military organizations become more interested in applying biotechnology in areas of energy, materials science, logistics, medicine, and electronics.
2. “In the life sciences, proliferation is over.” – Dr. Lawrence Kerr at AAAS panel discussion, 8 December 2009
Techniques and technologies in the most advanced biological fields are already spread across the globe and across populations. The life sciences’ immeasurable potential for legitimate and constructive use, the culturally entrenched value placed on improving human health worldwide, the aforementioned dual-use dilemma, and decreasing costs have made most biological materials and biotechnologies largely uncontainable. And from a global public health perspective, they should not be contained.
It is possible now for amateur biologists to genetically alter or synthesize pathogens out of their own closets. These at-home “biohackers” can “tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes” for a modest price.
Striking the proper balance between reaping the benefits of the life sciences and reducing the risks of technological abuse is extraordinarily tricky. Professor Barry Kellman of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute has called biothreat policy “the most multifaceted, multidimensional, nuanced undertaking in the entire security domain.”
3. “What do you mean we can’t do this? We’re doing it now.” –Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, quoting the scientific community’s response to an assessment of biotechnological capabilities
The biotechnology industry is moving at a revolutionary pace. Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, co-authored a 2002 report detailing the threat of bioterrorism. According to the Washington Post, the report noted that “some key biotechnologies would be achievable only three to four years from then.” However, by the time the final report was sent out for review by bench scientists, the report’s expert panel learned that some of those technologies had been developed. “It shows how fast the field is moving,” noted Dr. Zilinskas.
From altering biological agents at their most fundamental building blocks to “de novo” synthesis of preexisting or new microbes, the wonders of biotechnology often seem boundless. The risks presented by advances in biotechnology will increasingly demand attention in the future.