Tag Archives: biological warfare

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 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

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

Looking Behind the Brick Wall: Military

From the DARPA website on project  Revolutionary Enhancement of Visibility by Exploiting Active Light-fields (REVEAL) program

Imagine, for example, squad members patrolling a street in a deployed urban environment, and an armed assailant crouching behind a car or a concrete barrier. Without the benefit of different vantage points (from the air, for example), the squad could be blind to the hidden threat. If by chance a glass storefront window were behind the assailant, the squad might spot the assailant’s reflection in the window. But if the backdrop were a brick wall, there would be no visible reflection. By exploiting currently untapped aspects of light and the varied paths of photons bouncing off the brick wall, troops using hardware based on the theoretical foundations provided by REVEAL might someday be able to detect the otherwise hidden assailant [or see clearly what people are doing inside their homes].

Another potential application could be determining an unknown material’s composition and other properties from a safe distance, avoiding the potential danger associated with close proximity and physical examination. Based on information carried by the photons interacting with the material, it may be possible for troops in the future to identify radioactive, biological or chemical threats and camouflaged targets from much farther away than currently possible.

See also FBO

On-Demand Germs: Bioengineering for the Military

From the DARPA websitThe development of increasingly sophisticated techniques and tools to sequence, synthesize and manipulate genetic material has led to the rapidly maturing discipline of synthetic biology. …[But] The costs of maintaining required environmental controls and detecting and compensating for genetic alterations are substantial and severely limit the widespread application of synthetic biology to U.S. national security missions.

To help address these challenges, DARPA has created the Biological Robustness in Complex Settings (BRICS)  BRICS seeks to develop the fundamental understanding and component technologies needed to increase the biological robustness and stability of engineered organisms while maintaining or enhancing the safe application of those organisms in complex biological environments. The goal is to create the technical foundation for future engineered biological systems to achieve greater biomedical, industrial and strategic potential.

“By making these systems more robust, stable and safe, BRICS seeks to harness the full range of capabilities at the intersection of engineering and biology,” said Justin Gallivan, DARPA program manager. “These capabilities could include efficient on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, fuels, sensors and coatings; or engineered microbes able to optimize human health by treating or preventing disease.”


Predator Bacteria for War

The  Pathogen Predators Program of DARPA would represent a significant departure from conventional antibacterial therapies that rely on small molecule antibiotics. While antibiotics have been remarkably effective in the past, their widespread use has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections that are difficult or impossible to treat. In vitro studies have shown that predators such as Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus and Micavibrio aeruginosavorus can prey upon more than one hundred different human pathogens and will also prey on multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The Pathogen Predators program will answer three fundamental questions about bacterial predators:

1) Are predators toxic to recipient (host) organisms?
2) Against what pathogens (prey) are predators effective?
3) Can pathogens develop resistance to predation?

This list [of bacteria that could be killed by predator bacteria] includes NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Category A and B threats to national security:

NIAID Category A and B
Yersinia pestis (i.e. plague)
Francisella tularensis (i.e. tularemia)
Brucella species
Coxiella burnetii (i.e. Q fever)
Rickettsia prowazekii (i.e.  typhus)
Burkholderia mallei (i.e. glanders)
Burkholderia pseudomallei (i.e. melioidosis)

Source DARRA (pdf)

The Next Pandemic and the US Military

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge [including also due to biological warfare]. As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge. WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.” In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.

In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk. A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease. Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats. One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month….“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic, July 25, 2012