In the 1970s, the Rhodesian government poisoned wells with cholera in areas held by black nationalists. In 1940, Japan dropped plague-infected fleas from airplanes onto a Chinese city. And as far back as 1925, Winston Churchill worried about the prospect of Anthrax attacks. Yet today, no country is openly pursuing biological weapons, writes Kate Charlet, director of the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a new article for Foreign Affairs. Confronted with technical and tactical challenges, dubious effectiveness, and moral objections, countries that pursued biological weapons programs during the 20thcentury abandoned them.
Now new bio-weapon concerns loom, among them the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR. As Charlet writes, “One of the most worrisome questions today is whether advances in biotechnology could tempt states to revive their old biological weapons programs or start new ones.” If bio-weapons become “better”—cheaper, easier to target, easier to use in secret, or more deadly—governments that once rejected them might embrace them again. Even if major powers are not swayed, small and rogue states might make a different calculation, Charlet writes.
There’s also the fact that, while nations may not be openly pursuing biological weapons, the reality isn’t so clear cut. The US military’s research wing, DARPA, openly invests in biotechnology, as Bulletin columnist Filippa Lentzos recently observed in her take on what to do about dangerous biological research. DARPA—and other government agencies in the United States and elsewhere developing biological tools—characterize their work as defensive rather than offensive, but the two can look quite similar.
Charlet has ideas on how to tackle the new risks posed by cutting-edge developments in biotechnology—without going overboard on regulation. Among them are strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention and improving governments’ ability to detect biological attacks.
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