Tag Archives: biological threat

Our Biggest Weakness: Weak Biodefenses + Malicious Viruses

The coronavirus that has killed over 180,000 people worldwide was not created with malice. Analysis of its genome suggests that, like many new pathogens, it originated by natural selection rather than human design. But …“Covid-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of the US and global economy to biological threats, which exponentially increases the potential impact of an attack,” says Richard Pilch of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In theory, bioweapons are banned. Most countries in the world are party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975, which outlaws making or stockpiling biological agents for anything other than peaceful purposes. But some countries probably make them secretly, or keep the option close at hand. America accuses North Korea of maintaining an offensive biological-weapons programme, and alleges that China, Iran and Russia dabble in dual-use biolgical research (for peaceful and military usage) research. Toxins like ricin have also been bought and sold on shady recesses of the internet known as the dark web.

Germ warfare briefly rose to prominence in September 2001, when letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to American news organisations and senators, killing five people. That was a wake-up call. Public health became part of national security. BioWatch, a network of aerosol sensors, was installed in more than 30 cities across America. But in recent years threats from chemical weapons, like the sarin dropped by Syria’s air force and the Novichok smeared on door handles by Russian assassins, took priority.

Though the Trump administration published a national biodefence strategy in 2018, it shut down the National Security Council’s relevant directorate and proposed cuts to the laboratories that would test for biological threats. Funding for civilian biosecurity fell 27% between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, down to $1.61bn—less than was spent on buying Black Hawk helicopters.

Yet many pathogens used as weapons tend to differ from respiratory viruses in important ways. Those like anthrax, caused by bacteria which form rugged and sprayable spores, but do not spread from human to human, have the advantage of minimising the risk of rebound to the attacker. With the notable exception of smallpox—a highly contagious and lethal virus that was eradicated in 1979 but preserved by the Soviet Union for use against America (but not Europe), and now exists only in two laboratories, in America and Russia—most biological weapons would therefore have more localised effects than the new coronavirus.

Even so, the slow and stuttering response to the pandemic has exposed great weaknesses in how governments would cope…demonstrating that every part of public-health infrastructure is either broken or stretched to the max. The centrepiece of America’s biosurveillance programme, a network of laboratories designed for rapid testing, failed, says Mr Koblentz, while the national stockpile of face masks had not been substantially replenished in over a decade. Would-be attackers will take note.

In 2016 American intelligence agencies singled out genome editing as a national-security threat for the first time. Two years later a major study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned that synthetic biology, a potent set of methods for tinkering with or creating organisms, could, in time, be used to re-create viruses like smallpox or make existing pathogens more dangerous, such as resistant to antibiotics. In 2011 Dutch and Japanese scientists said that they had created a version of bird flu that could be transmitted between mammals by the respiratory route—an announcement that prompted the Netherlands to treat the relevant academic papers as sensitive goods subject to export controls.

In January 2020 Canadian scientists funded by an American biotech company used synthetic DNA from Germany to synthesise a microbe closely related to smallpox, indicating the ease with which it could be done. “If a potential bad actor pursues a weapons capability using sars-cov-2, the virus is now attainable in laboratories all around the world, and blueprints for assembling it from scratch have been published in the scientific literature.”

 The trouble is that biodefence has evolved slowly, says Dan Kaszeta, a former biological weapons adviser to the White House. Compact devices that can detect chemical threats and warn soldiers to don a gas mask have long been available. “That doesn’t exist for anthrax or any of the other aerosol pathogens,” says Mr Kaszeta. “Telling the difference between an anthrax spore and a bit of tree pollen is not something you can do in a couple of seconds.”

Excertps from Biodefence: Spore Wars, Economist, Apr. 25, at 19

Humans as Lab Rats: Weaponizing Ticks

In July 2019, the US House of Representatives added an unusual amendment to the 2020 U.S. defense budget: a requirement that the Department of Defense reveal details of any biological warfare research it did involving ticks during the Cold War. The requirement stems from allegations that Lyme disease was actually a biowarfare experiment accidentally released into the wild.  The amendment was added to the defense budget by New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith. It calls on the U.S. government to “conduct a review of whether the Department of Defense experimented with ticks and other insects regarding use as a biological weapon between the years of 1950 and 1975.”

If there was any sort of research the Pentagon Inspector General “must provide the House and Senate Armed Services committees with a report on the experiments’ scope and ‘whether any ticks or insects used in such experiments were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design.’”

The call for information comes after the publication of the book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons. A major allegation in the book is that Willy Burgdorfer, the discoverer of the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease, claimed that the disease was the result of a biological weapons program that went awry. Burgdorfer himself was involved in biological warfare programs that involved using blood-sucking insects, including fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, as vectors for the transmission of human diseases.

Weaponizing bugs isn’t a completely novel idea. Imperial Japan weaponized insects, typically fleas infected with plague and cholera, where they were used against the civilian population in China. The Japanese military organization responsible for the research, Unit 731, was later rounded up by the U.S. military after the war.  Despite committing serious, egregious crimes against humanity, including vivisection, members of the unit were only lightly punished by the Allies, reportedly in exchange for research data.

Lyme Disease affects approximately 30,000 people a year, primarily in the northeastern United States. The book alleges biowarfare research involving ticks took place at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Plum Island, New York—both areas where CDC maps note the disease is very prevalent, but the CDC itself does not have an opinion on the allegation.

So…Did the Pentagon Use Ticks for Biological Warfare?, Popular Mechanics. July 17, 2019.

How to Prepare for Deadly Flu and Nuclear Fallout

Breakthroughs in the science of programmable gene expression inspired DARPA to establish the PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements (PREPARE) program with the goal of delivering powerful new defenses against public health and national security threats. DARPA has now selected five teams to develop a range of new medical interventions that temporarily and reversibly modulate the expression of protective genes to guard against acute threats from influenza and ionizing radiation, which could be encountered naturally, occupationally, or through a national security event.

The program builds from the understanding that the human body has innate defenses against many types of health threats, but that the body does not always activate these defenses quickly or robustly enough to block the worst damage. To augment existing physiological responses, PREPARE technologies would provide a programmable capability to up- or down-regulate gene expression on demand, providing timely, scalable defenses that are proportional to anticipated threats. Service members and first responders could administer these interventions prior to threat exposure or therapeutically after exposure to mitigate the risk of harm or death.

Influenza: “Researchers working within the PREPARE program seek to improve rates of survival and recovery in catastrophic scenarios for which reliable and scalable countermeasures don’t currently exist,” said Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the PREPARE program manager….Three PREPARE teams are pursuing multi-pronged approaches to influenza defense and treatment that use programmable gene modulators to boost the human body’s natural defenses against influenza and also weaken the virus’ ability to cause harm by directly neutralizing the viral genomes. If successful, their approaches would potentially protect against virtually all influenza strains — regardless of whether a virus is newly emergent or has developed drug resistance — and would provide near instantaneous immunity, in contrast to traditional vaccines. Additionally, the teams are designing their countermeasures so that they are simple to deliver — for example, as intranasal sprays — reducing the logistical challenge of protecting large numbers of people.A team led by DNARx LLC, under principal investigator Dr. Robert Debs, aims to develop a new DNA-encoded gene therapy that helps patients fight influenza by boosting the natural immune response and other protective functions of their nasal passages and lungs.

Radiation Hazard Symbol

Ionizing Gamma Radiation: Other PREPARE teams are pursuing treatments to protect the body from the effects of ionizing gamma radiation. In humans, radiation poisoning primarily affects stem cells in the blood and gut, yet existing treatments only help to regenerate blood cells, and only with limited effect. There is no possibility for prophylactic administration of these drugs, and most must be delivered immediately following radiation exposure to provide any benefit. There are no existing medical countermeasures for radiation damage to the gut
A team led by the University of California, San Francisco, under principal investigator Dr. Jonathan Weissman, also aims to develop gene therapies to enhance resilience against ionizing radiation. The team’s approach should result in an intravenous or orally available treatment that activates innate defenses in gut and blood stem cells for a period of several weeks.

A Dose of Inner Strength to Survive and Recover from Potentially Lethal Health Threats
New tools for programmable modulation of gene expression could yield enhanced resilience against influenza and ionizing radiation for service members and first responders, DARPA Press Release, June 27, 2019

Pandemic Counter-Measures: DARPA

The US military supports US Government responses to public health emergencies such as Ebola, which can cause regional destabilization and spread through global travel. Warfighters must also operate in regions where diseases like chikungunya and dengue are endemic, and even seemingly mild challenges like seasonal influenza affect force readiness. In addition to these naturally occurring threats, terrorists and other potential adversaries have a growing palette of biological tools to engineer new biological threats. Existing capabilities to respond to an outbreak and develop therapeutics often take years or even decades to achieve results. Recent examples of public health emergencies have demonstrated a national and global inability to develop effective preventive or therapeutic solutions in a relevant timescale when an infectious threat emerges. The threat of infectious agents on US and global national security can be mitigated if the DoD has the capability to rapidly deploy and impart near-immediate immunity to military personnel and civilian populations for known and newly emerging pathogens.

The goal of P3 is to achieve an integrated capability that can deliver pandemic prevention countermeasures to patients within 60 days of an outbreak. P3 aims to revolutionize outbreak response by enabling rapid discovery, characterization, production, and testing of efficacious medical countermeasures. P3 will innovate in the following areas: (1) Generation of virus stock (including viral unknowns); (2) Rapid evolution of antibody candidates; and (3) Gene-encoded antibody delivery methods.

Excerpts from  The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Proposers Day March 2, 2017 

The Manipulation of Insects: DARPA

DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office s working on new Insect Allies program. Insect Allies will seek to develop vector[insect]-mediated modification technologies for mature plants to rapidly counter environmental and biological threats to crops. Threats might include pathogens, pests, drought, and salinity, among others. DARPA believes that the high specificity of genetic modification coupled with quick plant gene uptake could allow crops to be protected from threats within a single growing season.The Proposers Day will be held on November 18, 2016

Excerpt from  DARPA Press Release Insect Allies Proposers Day, Nov. 2016

Animal Diseases as Biological Weapons

The World Health Organisation (WHO), animal health and national defence officers called for wider international co-operation to avoid the spread of animal diseases that could be used as biological weapons.  Sixty percent of human diseases come from animal agents and 80% of the agents that could be used for bio-terrorism are of animal origin, said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

“History has shown animal diseases have often been used as weapons before. Advances in genetics can now make them even more harmful. So we are calling for further investment to be made at national level on bio-security,” Vallat said at a conference on biological threat reduction.  Diseases have spread from animals to humans for millennia, with latest examples including the bird flu virus that has killed hundreds of people around the globe.

The OIE and the WHO warned animal disease agents could escape naturally, accidentally but also intentionally from laboratories, to be used as bio-weapons….Security breaches involving animal diseases are not rare.  The Pentagon said in May 2015 and June the US military had sent live samples of anthrax, which can be used as biological weapon, to five countries outside the United States and to dozens of US labs.

Excerpts from Beware of animal diseases as biological weapons, health experts say, Reuters, June 30, 2015