Biological warfare is a frightening possibility that has recently become more accessible and, potentially, far more powerful due to recent advances in genetic manipulation called CRISPR.
Early this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper cited genetic manipulation made possible by the new technique as a threat to national security, adding genetic manipulation to the list of threats of weapons of mass destruction. But just what is CRISPER and how much of a threat does this pose?
The technique’s full name is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat and it refers to a component of the immune systems of bacteria that seek to protect themselves against viruses.
The short and palindromic DNA sequences in bacterial and microorganism cells precisely cut up and modify virus DNA to protect the cell. Researchers have now figured out how to harness this process for both industrial and research purposes.
This is a classic example of a dual-use technology that has powerfully beneficial civilian applications as well as devastating military potential. In an industrial context, the system can be used to create hardier antibiotics, yogurts and yeasts. The benefit to food production alone can be substantial.
In research, there is enormous medical potential in the ability, very precisely, to alter the DNA of a specific cell or organism. Cures for disease and genetic disorders are much closer with such a powerful tool for precise genetic manipulation, but so are engineered bio-weapons.
Bio-weapons present a unique challenge to nation states. Officially, the development of biological weapons is prohibited by the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1975, signed by 175 countries, including the US, China and Russia.
But without continuing research into bio-warfare, a nation is left defenseless against an enemy that does have continued development. Several secret programs out of Russia, China and the US have already been discovered, highlighting the weakness of the treaty itself.
But what was previously a resource-intensive endeavor only within the reach of powerful nations, the increased precision and efficiency of the CRISPR techniques have put far more powerful weapon development possibilities within reach of any regime or sophisticated criminal organization.
Biological warfare is not new. The US Army distributed smallpox infected blankets to American Indian populations in an act of biological warfare and even the early Mongols broke sieges by launching diseased bodies over the walls of castles.
During World War II, the Japanese dropped bubonic plague infected fleas in ceramic jars onto Chinese cities, releasing plagues that killed untold thousands.
The US military conducted tests of bio-weapons on an industrial scale during the Cold War and in September of 1950, purposely tested bacteria called Serratia marcescens on 800,000 residents of San Francisco, resulting in eleven illnesses and one death, in their attempt to increase its spread.
The research into bacteria such as anthrax and far more deadly viruses was conducted in secret on a massive scale.
But CRISPR allows even greater capabilities to be had in the garages or low-cost laboratories of any bad actor. Now able to tailor viruses to specific populations and for very specific effect, it is theoretically possible to produce pathogens that could render certain populations sterile or cause genetic mutations in their victims.
As is the case with bio-weapons, they may be easily loosed upon the world but are very difficult to contain or control.
Whereas the benefits of editing the human genome to remove inherited heart defects is a great leap forward for science, this technique brings with it the chance for easily-accessible and precisely-tailored viruses that are far more difficult to stop.
The double edged sword of genetic engineering that can produce hardier crops, improved food supplies and remove genetic defects also threatens to kill millions with man-made plagues.
Imagine this system in the hands of a terrorist group or malicious nation-state that modifies the Ebola virus to have a longer incubation period and increase the transmission rate by a thousand fold, or build into Zika the ability severely to alter a victim’s DNA and render 95% of its victims infertile.
Spread by mosquitoes or person to person, these new diseases would speed across borders, breaching all conventional defenses.
After the incredible advances and proliferation of the use of the CRISPR technique in the past several years, experts believe we are now looking at a genetic arms race that is being conducted in research labs across the globe.
Expect advances in medicine and food sciences, but don’t be surprised if the next global pandemic is man-made and far worse than any we have seen before.
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