Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Countries have availed themselves of biological weapons since time immemorial and the fright of biowarfare coinciding with the advancing technology such as biogenetic engineering is taking shape in every part of the world. Biological warfare dates back to the pre-20th century when the Mongol forces were reported to have sent plague-infected bodies for the creation of the Biological Weapons Convention(BWC) to curb the encouragement of advancing and developing of biological ammunitions, but to no avail. Several nations have stocked and developed biowarfare agents, and there is a high probability of terrorist organisations acquiring them and gaining expertise to use them. One of the main uses of biowarfare agents is that they are produced swiftly, are cost-effective, can promulgate, and affect a large area leading to high mortality. With the surge in chances of biological warfare being used for defence and even terrorism, there is a need for a vigorous surveillance system involving the public health sector along with the integration of health personnel, security, intelligence, diplomats and law enforcement agencies. This paper examines the impact of biogenetic engineering and safety measures adopted including bio-preparedness and bio-defence to mitigate the effects leading to epidemics.
The threat of biological weapons is beyond question and the extent of their destruction is unfathomable. The mistreatment of biological weapons has dated back to the pre-20th century and the dismay caused by biowarfare is concurrent with the advancing technology emerging from every part of the world. So much so, this gives rationale to the theory that biological pathogens can be used for increasing bioterrorism and warfare.
“Bacteriological warfare is science stood on its head…a gross perversion.”
Biological warfare can be best described as the intentional use of microorganisms and toxins, generally, of microbial, plant or animal origin to generate diseases intended to cause death in humans, livestock and crops. The desirability for employing bioweapons in war and terrorist attacks is ascribed to their low production costs, easy access to a wide range of biological pathogens, their non-traceable ability by routine security systems, and their easy transportation (Atlas, 1998). Their traits of being virtually invisible and their weightlessness renders trace and verification procedures ineffective and makes the non-proliferation of such weapons impossible. Ergo, national security defence professionals and security personnel will increasingly be subjected to biological warfare as it unfolds in the future (Schneider and Grintner, 1995). Pathogens, excreta, human and animal carcasses being hurled in wells to pollute water and even infecting cattle were the aboriginal methods of biowarfare used in ancient times (14th and 15th centuries). Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons possess the mutual property of inflicting mass destruction. The practice of biowarfare arises from the fact that the victims of such warfare are biological in origin and it differs from the destruction of civic infrastructure, and large-scale disruption of routine facilities. One of the primary objectives of biological warfare is the erosion of economic progress and stability. The advent of bio-economic warfare for mass destruction can be discovered by the utilisation of biological agents against economic targets such as crops, livestock and ecosystems. Moreover, such warfare can always be carried out under the pretexts of natural occurrences and disasters that lead to breakouts of diseases of either endemic or epidemic proportions. As a rule, microbiologists have initiated research in the development of bio-armaments, composed of powerful antibiotics, antisera, toxoids and vaccines to neutralise and eliminate a wide range of diseases.
Biowarfare is an emerging threat in the 21st century. Biophysicist Steven Block states that bioweapons are “the poor man's atom bomb”. The most preferred choice of biological warfare programs is Anthrax (spores that are easily found in nature, can be produced in a lab, and can last for a long time in the environment). In modern times, Anthrax and smallpox aren't terror-inducing. "Black biology- a shadowy science in which microorganisms are genetically engineered for the sole purpose of creating novel weapons of terror” are slowly being introduced and pose an immense threat, leading to the practice of intense caution.
History of biowarfare
Pre-20th-century use of biological weapons
One of the first occurrences of usage of biological warfare was recorded in 1347when Mongol forces were reported to have sent plague-infested bodies over the walls into the Black Sea port of Caffa (now known as Feodosiya, Ukraine). Some historians believe that ships from the besieged city returned to Italy with the plague, resulting in the Black Death pandemic that swept through Europe over the next four years and killed some 25 million people, which accounts for 1/3rd of the population.
In 1710 a Russian army fighting against the Swedish forces besieged Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) also propelled plague-infested corpses over the city’s walls. In 1763 British troops barricaded Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) during Pontiac’s Rebellion passing blankets infected with smallpox virus to the Indians, causing a catastrophic epidemic among their clans.
Biological weapons in the World Wars
During World War I Germany initiated a covert program to infect horses and cattle owned by Allied forces on both the Western and Eastern fronts and it was revealed that the infectious agent for glanders was reported to have been used. For instance, German agents infiltrated the United States and infected animals prior to their shipment across the Atlantic in support of Allied forces. Furthermore, the Germans apparently attempted to spread the plague in St. Petersburg in 1915 to weaken the Russian resistance.
The trepidation of World War I resulted in several countries signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which aimed to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons in the war. Nonetheless, Japan, one of the members of the protocol, got involved in surreptitious research on biowarfare concerning its development, production and even testing it on more than 3,000 human subjects in China (including allied prisoners of the war), violating the treaty’s objective. The Japanese experimented with the infectious agents for bubonic plague, anthrax, typhus, smallpox, yellow fever, hepatitis, cholera, gas gangrene, and glanders, among others.
Even though there is no confirmed evidence of any other use of biowarfare in World War II, both sides seemed to carry out active research and development and advancement programs. The Japanese use of biological warfare agents against the Chinese resulted in America taking on biological warfare research.
Biological weapons in the Cold War
In the Cold War era that followed World War II, both the Soviet Union and the United States along with their allies undertook large-scale biological warfare research and development and weapons production programs.
Nonetheless, those programs were halted as required by the law and were broken upon the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which is a disarmament treaty that bans development and stockpiling and acquisition of biological and toxin weapons in 1972. In the case of the United States and its allies, they sincerely complied with the terms of the treaty. Although such was not the case with the Soviet Union as they carried on with aggressive and surreptitious research. The lack of a verification regime made the Soviets defy the treaty without being detected.
Genetic Engineering, Bioterrorism, and Biowarfare
The approach to genetic engineering began evolving in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, genetic engineering was already an emerging lucrative industry. In the last decade of the 20th century, the knowledge and potential of molecular biology had increased exponentially. However, the revolution of molecular biology may have incidentally untethered a new threat to mankind through genetically engineered pathogens, which could be used to develop many new aggressive biological weapons. Although biotechnology has been seen to be promising, it can be misused for the development of lethal bioweapons.
Revolutions in Medicine and Military Affairs
The revolution in molecular biology and biotechnology may be considered as a potential Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Four elements are integral prerequisites for an RMA: technological advancement, integration of the new technology into military systems, military operational innovation, and organizational adaptation in a way that fundamentally modifies the disposition and conduct of conflict. The Gulf War has been considered as an epitome of space/information warfare RMA. The technological developments in biotechnology, biowarfare, and its integration with genetically engineered pathogens may account for the future RMA. The Russians have added biological warfare into their maxim; however, there is, fortunately, no apparent evidence that they have had any reason to utilize it in the past few decades.
Ironically, genetic engineering is becoming a regime and ordinary while biological weaponization is currently a less developed technique. Anthrax-laden letters were sent by mail to the US following the September 11, 2001 attacks which indicated that terrorists can be very creative in their delivery methods.
In any case, biotechnology contributes to a future RMA. Simultaneously, it is revolutionising medicine. In modern medicine the human genome has been sequenced. Gene therapy will make the replacement or repair of faulty genes possible, and it is most sought after in modern medicine. Mechanisms such as molecular genetics, genome sequencing, and gene splicing therapy have a two-edged potential. Contradictorily, the same biotechnology which is used to develop a new drug or vaccine may be used to develop more deadly bioweapons. The rise in biotechnology knowledge corresponds to an increase in the eagerness of terrorists to cause mass casualties and increased destruction. Observing the historical pattern of integration between warfare and disease, these two relatively new phenomena of unparalleled biotechnology and terrorists willing to cause mass casualties will very likely traverse in history.
Biowar and Bioterrorism
As our rivals look at creative ways such as “asymmetric” advantages, bioweapons are always acquiring deliberation. National leaders and terrorists, tempted by the potentially life-threatening power of biological weapons, lead one to acquire them. When biological weapons have been employed in wars, they have proven to be inefficient. Their unreliability and uncontrollability have made their military value quite marginal.
Stabilising biological agents and deploying them, either using undisguised sophisticated mechanisms or surreptitiously without harming the perpetrator, requires expertise that is not widely available. Hopefully, with the newer abilities of biological engineering and a new generation of weapons, this may change. Whereas military personnel often train to endure in chemical and biological environments, civilians do not have either the resistance or protective equipment and training for a biological attack, and would therefore be the target group in a bioterrorist attack.
Entomological warfare is also a possibility for bioterrorism. Entomological warfare (EW) can be viewed as a type of biological warfare that employs insects to disrupt supply lines by damaging crops, or direct harm to the enemy and civilian populations.
Entomological warfare is of three types. One type involves infecting the insects with pathogens and then spreading them in specific target areas. The insect plays the role of a vector, infecting any living thing that they might bite. Another type of entomological warfare is a direct insect attack against the crop. Here, the insect isn’t injected with a pathogen. Instead, the insect has such inbuilt characteristics that are harmful to the crop. The third way entails using uninfected insects, such as bees, to attack the enemy directly.
Agricultural warfare is another type of biowarfare that has been employed. Agro-warfare is action/s that negatively impact the production, processing, transportation, marketing, and/or consumption of agricultural products of one’s adversary.”
Also known as agro-terrorism, it uses pathogenic insects that target food animals or crops, instead of using them directly on humans. The fact that a lot of people are vegetarians and it is the cattle that ultimately gets affected, the main focus of such AW weapons are staple crops such as cereals or potatoes. There are a lot of pathogens that destroy crop plants such as rusts, smuts and molds that cause plant diseases. The spores of these primitive fungi dispersed by wind or rain, are often highly infectious and there is no immediate effective treatment for such diseases.
Some of the examples of pathogenic fungi are soybean rust and wheat stem that have the ability to destroy major crops. Certain fungi may produce toxins for example, “as when the ergot fungus grows on rye or other cereals, it produces a mixture of toxins that cause a syndrome referred to as ergotism, which causes sickness and death in people and livestock.”
The United States Department of Defense released Proliferation: Threat and Response, which identified patterns in biological warfare abilities. These include the use of genetically engineered vectors and the growing understanding of both infectious disease mechanisms and the immune defense system. An annex to Proliferation: Threat and Response stated that the current level of usage of BW is relatively low, but there is immense potential based on developments in the modern field of molecular biology, fermentation, and drug delivery technology for making advanced weapons.
In 1997, a group of scientists met to discuss “the threat posed by the development and use of biological agents.” This JASON Group came up with technical advice to the U.S. government and “facilitates the contributions of scientists to problems of national security and public benefit.” Their meeting focused on the future threat of biowarfare particularly on genetically engineered pathogens and weapons.
The JASON Group grouped potential genetically engineered pathogens into broad groups of futuristic threats
Binary Biological Weapons- To initiate a binary biological weapon, a host bacteria and an aggressive plasmid could be individually isolated and produced in the required quantities. Just before the bioweapon has to be deployed, the two components can be mixed together. The transformation of the host organism back into a pathogen can conceivably take place after a weapon is triggered and during transport.
Designer Genes: The Human Genome Project has decoded and provided a human molecular blueprint. Likewise, the complete genome sequences are now known for 599 viruses, 205 naturally occurring plasmids, 31 bacteria, one fungus, two animals, and one plant. Many of these genomes have been published in unclassified journals and have been online. The terrorist groups can be at an edge as these are essentially blueprints that would enable them to make microorganisms more harmful.
Gene Therapy as a Weapon: Gene therapy will change the treatment of human genetic diseases. The aim is to effect a permanent change in the genetic composition of a person by repairing or replacing a faulty gene. Genes have already been interwoven into bacteria to produce “human” insulin in large quantities. The eventual goal is to intertwine a gene that codes for the production of insulin to cure diabetes. Similar research is ongoing about adding the missing gene to prevent the symptoms of cystic fibrosis. However, the same technology could be destabilized to add pathogenic genes.
Stealth viruses: A stealth virus is an enigmatic viral infection that furtively enters human cells and then remains latent for an extended time. However, a prompt by an external stimulus triggers the virus to activate and cause disease. As a biological weapon, a stealth virus could covertly infect the human cells of a population. The virus could be activated in the targeted population, or a threat of activation could be made.
Biodefense and bio preparedness
Major technologies which have made detection of bioweapons possible include: -
Microbiological culturing- it involves the isolation and identification of biological agents such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. “Microbes are cultured on selective media, and viable microbes can be studied for morphological and biochemical characterization,'' a source revealed.
Flow cytometry- “this technique involves the scattering of laser light and emission of fluorescence by excitation of dyes lined with bacterial cells.” The bodies used for the detection and identification of different lethal bioweapons are monoclonal.
Cellular fatty acid-based profiling- the strains in the bacteria can be singled out on the basis of their fatty acid structures. The cellular fatty acids present in the bacteria are converted to fatty acid methyl esters which are examined by gas-liquid chromatography.
PCR-based detection- it is a sensitive molecular biology technique. Its rapid nature of the identification of pathogens is faster as compared to the traditional microbiological techniques. “Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to identify an organism based on the presence of specific DNA sequence(s) in the organism.” PCR-based identification has been reported in the case of various biowarfare agents such as anthracis, C. burnetii, Ebola virus, etc.
Immunobiological methods- the identification of the bacteria is done by a technique based on antigen-antibody interactions. The cell surfaces of the bacteria possess specific antigens to which antibodies bind and form a detectable colored complex. “Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) for example, is used for the presence or quantitative detection of antigens present on the agent. It is efficient, economical, and readily employed for the detection of biowarfare agents such as anthracis, B. pseudomallei,”
Next-generation sequencing (NGS)- NGS techniques are used to sequence multiple DNA fragments of bacterial and viral BWAs from clinical or environmental samples simultaneously because of their highly specific and rapid nature. NGS technique has been used hugely in the development of diagnostics, for the identification and differentiation of various infectious pathogens.
Bio-sensors- biosensors are analytical devices that generate an electrical signal or a “beep” sound when they come in contact with the analyte present in pathogens. The next step is to convert such a biological response into a detectable form with the help of a transducer, which detects the presence of any biowarfare agent in the sample. “Immuno-biosensor consisting of bismuth nanoparticles (BiNPs) has been developed for anthrax PA toxin detection in a particular sample.”
Bioterrorism is neither something new nor something that is likely to go away but will rather increase in operation. However, even if the number of casualties is likely to increase with an increase in advanced biotechnologies, the impact of a bioterrorist attack can be fatal and leave serious economic damage as well. Thus, it is best to be prepared to deal with the ramifications and mitigate such disasters. Some constructive measures include enhancing public health and among other areas, diagnostics, including microbial identification and typing, supervision, generic remedial against drug resistance, training and education will significantly enhance the ability of society to fight against such massive outbreaks and mitigate the ill-effects of bioterrorist attacks. Such an approach is likely to be the most cost-effective and more likely to succeed
The most recent bioweapon which rendered the world weak in its wake is COVID-19. “It is not a science-fiction anymore”, said the editor of the magazine Politico. Indeed, coronavirus has exposed our vulnerability to biowarfare. Extremists are exploiting the pandemic to build their support networks, undermine trust in government and even weaponize the virus. India has developed a lot under the leadership of the present government. But it is still vulnerable to the threat of biowarfare. More than half of our income is dependent on agriculture and if an enemy were to set loose pathogens on our crops, we would be completely defenseless against such threats. It is high time that we understand the necessity to prepare for the pressing threat of the harmful use of biological agents as weapons.
Recent breakthroughs in research indicate that the next hundred years will likely be the Biology dominated century. There are those who say: “the First World War was chemical; the Second World War was nuclear; and that the Third World War – God forbid – will be biological”.
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