Tag Archives: biological warfare

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 Detect Nuclear Terrorism in Big Cities

According to DARPA, terrorist attacks involving the use of proliferated radiological and special nuclear materials pose a potential threat to U.S. citizens and servicemembers. Early detection of such materials and devices made from them is a critical part of the U.S. strategy to prevent attacks. Lower-cost and more sensitive detectors, along with innovative deployment strategies, could significantly enhance detection and deterrence of attack.

The SIGMA program aims to revolutionize detection and deterrent capabilities for countering nuclear terrorism. A key component of SIGMA thus involves developing novel approaches to achieve low-cost, high-efficiency, packaged radiation detectors with spectroscopic gamma and neutron sensing capability. The program will seek to leverage existing infrastructure to help enable these next-generation detectors and their deployment in order to demonstrate game-changing detection and deterrent systems.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency fielded a sensor network to trace radioactive and nuclear materials during the Indianapolis 500 event on June 30, 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

Insect Biogeneering as a Biological Weapon: DARPA

According to Science Magazine, Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next. In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields [through insects]. This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs)[eg leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids) into ecosystems are profound. Further, this program stipulates that the means of delivery of these viral HEGAAs into the environment should be insect-based dispersion (Insect Allies Program). In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term). Furthermore, there has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits. As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

How to Kill Bacteria: Robo-Cells

Johns Hopkins University researchers are setting out to design and test self-directed microscopic warriors that can locate and neutralize dangerous strains of bacteria…[The goal] s to devise a prototype biocontrol system that can dispatch single-cell fighters to track down and engulf specific pathogens, rendering them harmless. The funding was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly called DARPA.

Possible first targets in this proof-of-concept project include Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s disease; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial strain that is the second-leading cause of infections found in hospitals. If the project succeeds, these tiny infection-fighters might one day be dispatched to curtail lethal microbes lurking in medical settings. Eventually, they could also be used to cleanse contaminated soil or possibly defend against bioterror attacks.

An important goal of the project is that each of the proposed soldier cells must carry out its own mission without relying on step-by-step commands from a remote human operator.

“Once you set up this biocontrol system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,” said Pablo A. Iglesias.”…In a similar way, the biocontrol systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes.”

These experts plan to biologically embed search-and-surround orders within a familiar type of amoeba cell called Dictyostelium discoideum [slime mold]. These widely studied microbes, commonly found in damp soil such as riverbeds, typically engulf and dine on bacteria, which are much smaller.  “These amoebas possess receptors that can detect the biochemical ‘scents’ emitted by bacteria,” Robinson said. “Our goal is to use concepts from control theory to design a ‘super amoeba’ that can recognize a particular bad guy—a specific type of disease-causing bacteria—and then move toward and attack these target cells.”  Robinson added: “The plan is to develop amoebas that are super-sensitive to these bacterial signals and home in on them as though they were a plate piled high with fresh chocolate chip cookies. The goal is to make these amoebas behave as though this is the most natural thing to do.”.. But if the project is successful, the researchers say the single-cell fighters could eventually be introduced into the cooling and ventilation system in a hospital, where they could feast on the bacteria that are currently causing dangerous infections. One possible method of introducing the infection fighters into such systems might be through use of a spray solution.

Iglesias noted that initial efforts will focus on bacteria lurking outside, not within the body.  “In this contract, we are not targeting bacteria in human blood,” he said, “but the hope is that the techniques we develop would ultimately be useful for that.”

Excerpts from Phil Sneiderman, Johns Hopkins researchers aim to design self-driving cells to pursue deadly bacteria, John Hopkins University, Feb. 2, 2016

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