By Sophy Macartney
Dual-use technologies have been a concern of national security since the 1950s and were originally targeted at preventing the diversion of items with military uses. The scope of dual-use export controls has since shifted toward preventing the covert development of nuclear weapons. But as technology and science developments speed up, the danger is shifting in the direction of biological threats, which are also much easier and cheaper to develop covertly.
Biological weapons can be considered the worst substitute for nuclear weapons, as there is a path to development through diversion of accessible civilian dual-use equipment. Biological weapons have been alarming the international community since the 20th century’s advances in medical and networking technology made mass production of bio agents possible. But today, the already scary threat is even more unnerving when coupled with the emerging threats of biotechnology, artificial intelligence and climate change.
Historically, biological weapons have been deemed to be indiscriminate due to their uncontrollable spread. However, as biotechnology advances, it becomes more feasible that genetic modification of existing pathogens may be able to create limited biological weapons with more specific target profiles, and even produce more harmful weapons. With this development, it is likely that the threat from deliberately deployed biological agents will increase and change in nature by 2030.
Artificial intelligence and its cutting-edge abilities have been applied to early disease detection and gaining insight into chemical compound reactions, but with this capability to contribute to healthcare also comes great risk when used for nefarious purposes. An existing AI tool identified 40,000 bioweapon chemicals possibilities in the span of six hours. In an experiment, the AI system MegaSyn was trained to detect toxicity molecules, retain them, and create molecule combinations — the exact opposite of what it is intended to perform. Unlike at the start of bioweapons programs, machine learning has progressed far enough that current AI capabilities are able to allow bad actors to flip the switch and go from being a helpful tool of medicine to being a generator of weapons.
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and its associated compliance regime, the Australia Group, were designed and implemented before bioengineering, AI, and climate change multiplied the dangers of biological threats. The BWC still faces issues with its lack of verification measures. Additionally, COVID-19 exposed a lack of preparedness for global health crises. Not only are the frameworks and safeguards outdated, but the proper response capability is severely lacking.
Another factor is the difficulty of distinguishing intentional and unintentional outbreaks from one another. Some biological weapons can be designed to mimic naturally occurring phenomena. In cases like this, and in unintentional or climate change-induced cases, assessment, accountability, and response are further complicated. These vulnerabilities and theoretical ease of using biological weapons compared to nuclear weapons put a bigger target on biological substances.
As biological weapons have become cheaper and easier to develop, the danger that they could be employed has increased. Science and technology are outpacing the updates of the safeguards in place and the response capacity. The bottom line is, we are severely underprepared to regulate and respond to the looming biological threats. We should learn from the effects of COVID — even though it was not a bioweapon — that policy responses must be developed before, rather than after, a crisis.