Biotechnology’s crossroads

By Malcolm Dando | March 24, 2009

Starting in the early part of this millennium, scientists and analysts forecast that advances in biotechnology and the rush to develop biodefenses were likely to lead to the development of a range of new biological weapons that defenses wouldn’t be able to keep up with. Nearly 10 years later, the likelihood of these trends has not diminished, yet it is not too late to discourage the hostile exploitation of biotechnology.

Matthew Meselson, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University, succinctly presented the growing concern in the June 2000 CBWC Bulletin: “During the century ahead, as our ability to modify fundamental life processes continues its rapid advance, we will be able not only to devise additional ways to destroy life but will also become able to manipulate it–including the processes of cognition, development, reproduction, and inheritance.” He continued: “A world in which these capabilities are widely employed for hostile purposes would be a world in which the very nature of conflict had radically changed. Therein could lie unprecedented opportunities for violence, coercion, repression, or subjugation.”

Bioweapons scientists can be expected to modify biological agents, for example to make them resistant to antibiotics, in order to achieve superiority over defenses. When defenses catch up with these changes, this back and forth could be expected to change radically.”

Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency–James Petro, Theodore Plasse, and Jack McNulty–outlined the potential for a biological arms race emerging from this world in a 2003 analysis in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense, Strategy, Practice and Science. They suggested that the current threat consists mainly of the well-known pathogens that were previously weaponized but that biodefense capabilities would eventually be able to deal with these threats. Thus, bioweapons scientists would be expected to modify these agents, for example to make them resistant to antibiotics, in order to achieve superiority over defenses. When defenses catch up with these changes, this back and forth could be expected to change radically. As Petro and his colleagues stated: “Emerging biotechnologies likely will lead to a paradigm shift in bioweapons agent development: future biological agents could be rationally engineered to target specific human biological systems at the molecular level. This is a departure from the traditional model of bioweapons agent development, which is focused on the naturally occurring agent, not the target organism.” This analysis suggests that bioweapons could be expected to be superior to defenses for a very long (and nasty) period of time.

These findings were reinforced by two U.S. National Academies reports: Biotechnology Research in a Age of Terrorism and Globalization, Biosecurity and the Future of the Life Sciences. The first pointed to the dual-use dangers of seven classes of experiments, including those that “would confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents.” The second recommended the need to “adopt a broadened awareness of threats beyond the classical ‘select agents’ and other pathogenic organisms and toxins, so as to include, for example, approaches for disrupting host homeostatic and defense systems and for creating synthetic organisms.”

Adding to the mix is the potential for recent neuroscience research to be used for ill. A 2008 U.S. National Academies report, Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies, found that research into cognition enhancers could similarly be used to disrupt cognition and performance: “Specifically, if agonists of a particular system enhance cognition, it is mechanistically plausible that antagonists might disrupt cognition: conversely, if antagonists of a particular neurotransmitter enhance, its agonists might disrupt.” But who, you might well ask, in their right mind would want to go down the road of interfering with other peoples’ minds? A little history here might help to further emphasize the need to prevent the misuse of new technologies.

Toward the beginning of the Cold War, the United States began to develop means of interfering with people’s minds. (See Reid Kirby’s “Paradise lost: The psycho agents“.) After World War II, it seemed possible to develop a new class of chemical incapacitating agents that were more powerful than standard harassing agents for riot control but not as powerful as the lethal chemical warfare agents then available.

The U.S. Army was primarily interested in new agents that affected mental functions. These “psycho” agents “incapacitated primarily by interfering with cognitive mental abilities and produced delirium or hallucinations.” The United States manufactured quantities of the depressant BZ (or 3-quinuclidynyl benzilate) and developed weapon systems for its use. Yet the operational problems in using such agents–namely that it was difficult to control their effect–eventually led to the army to abandon interest in them.

The limitations of these agents, demonstrated again by use of a fentanyl derivative to end the 2002 Moscow Theater siege, does not mean that there is no interest in the development of such psycho agents today. Some people may well believe that ongoing advances in neuropsychopharmacology will allow scientists to widen the gap between the lethal and the incapacitating dose of an agent sufficiently for operational use to be undertaken successfully.

While the world has changed considerably since the beginning of the Cold War, the fundamental circumstances regarding the use of biotechnologies remain the same. As Meselson recounted: “We appear to be approaching a crossroads–a time that will test whether biotechnology, like all major predecessor technologies, will come to be intensively exploited for hostile purposes or whether instead our species will find the collective wisdom to take a different course.” The large-scale, hostile exploitation of biotechnology holds unimaginable consequences. We must not go down that road.

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