A tectonic shift in the world’s disposition is observed in a matter of a few weeks causing human race to fall flat on its face. An unswerving germ has crippled 21st century’s roaring socioeconomic infrastructure, creating rather a doomsday scenario.
By Safah Mariyam
Covid-19 has roused the world to sense a ‘palpable threat’ posed by a purported act of bioterrorism, an ugly face of plutocracy, and selective mutism of the world towards humanitarian crisis. From hegemonic power politics between US-China rivalry to bickering over the production and distribution of the vaccine has just divided the allies, shelved UN and discarded WHO instantly. It is not eccentric if one would think of the ‘novel’ coronavirus as a bioweapon, keeping in mind the nefarious economic and political vying for unipolar status between United States and China. Leaving guns to the primitive men, world order, on a geo-political podium has experienced a drastic transformation from uni-polarity to multi-polarity due to unprecedented developments triggered simply by a ‘biological agent’. Since the Human Genome Project has deciphered the script of life whereby providing the human genetic blueprint, enormous entries in genomic databases has made it sinecure for a bioweaponeer to design highly infectious cryptic viruses. Such viruses could clandestinely infect a population and later become activated. As the realm of genetic engineering has advanced, tailored development of lethal and contagious pathogens is feasible, rendering biodefense a challenging phenomenon. The dark side of biotechnology or ‘black biology’ has made it attainable to create ‘designer genes’ that can be exploited as lethal bioweapons.
The current imbroglio ensued by ‘novel’ coronavirus has shifted the world’s attention towards biological warfare like never before. Coronavirus pandemic went through the globe like a hot knife through butter, nevertheless such infectious diseases were renowned as a potential tool in warfare as early as 600 BC. Petrifying events like Black Death (plague), anthrax, and smallpox all show a grief-stricken picture of melancholy humanity has endured. Bio-warfare refers to deliberate spread of a disease to plants, livestock, and humans by using a biologically hazardous agent or a bioweapon. A bioweapon may sound like another kind of giant bazooka, but it is merely a few micrometers in size, not even visible to human eye. According to WHO, bioweapon is a harmful micro-organism like bacteria, toxin or virus, used as agents to spread infectious disease. Bio-weapons are extremely cheap when compared to the cost of a nuclear weapon program. As an example, a neuro-toxin ‘botulinum’ infamously known as ‘miracle bio-poison’, secreted by bacteria Clostridium botulinum, is known for its extreme lethality and potency. According to a research, 1 gram of crystalline toxin, if evenly circulated and inhaled, can kill more than one million people (Dhaked & Singh, 2010). A purified form of botulinum toxin from bacteria Clostridium botulinum is nearly 3 million times more intoxicating than sarin, a chemical nerve agent. Dr. Piers Millett, an expert on science policy and international security whose work centers on biotechnology and biowarfare articulates, ‘‘Imagine aerosolizing a lovely genome editor that knocks out a specifically nasty gene in your population. It’s a passive thing. You breathe it in and it retroactively alters the population’s DNA.’’
The stratagem of nations to equip bio-weaponary in battles is as old as the war itself. Over 2,000 years ago, earliest example of bio-warfare occurred when Assyrians had infected enemy wells with rye ergot fungus. In 1763, during Siege of Fort Pitt, the British army distributed smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans. In 1495, Spanish had mixed wine with the blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French foes in Naples, Italy. Germany had been accused of spreading cholera in Italy and plague in St. Petersburg, Russia during World War II. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult had intentionally contaminated salad bars in Oregon restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium causing 751 cases of poisoning. Large-scale production and weaponisation of many organisms such as those causing brucellosis, tularaemia and anthrax subsequently took place in many countries including the USSR, the USA and the UK during the 1950s and 1960s .In 2001, Bacillus anthracis spores were sent anonymously in the US postal system that caused 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths. In the ‘Anthrax anxiety’ over 50,000 people took broad spectrum antibiotics and deluged the medical care centers. Despite signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972, Former Soviet Union carried a clandestine bioweapon program ‘Biopreparat’ until 1990s. The massive military program to weaponize biological agents expended hundreds of US dollars on the research, and sought out most deadly and transmissible bacteria (plague) and virus (smallpox) to human. A Japanese biowarfare program employed more than 3000 scientists, and 150 buildings in Pingfan for its research and development. The center known as “Unit 731” worked on the pathogenic microorganisms and diseases of interest such as B.anthracis, Neisseria meningitis, Vibrio cholera, Shigella spp. and Yersinia pestis. In an estimate more than 10,000 war prisoners had died due to infection spread during experimentation of the Japanese program between 1932 and 1945.
Due to new-fangled DNA editing techniques in genetic engineering domain, constructive or destructive modifications in a biological cell are now a duck soup for the scientists. Such genome editing tools or ‘cut and paste tools’ are rather cheap, displaying immense potential for good use in medical field when used to fix genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis or deadly types of cancer. However, its horrendous use could be made by designing killer mosquitoes, anti-biotic resistant super bugs, and contagious viruses. Advanced gene editing technologies include CRISPR (Cas9), TALENs, zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs), and homing endonucleases or meganucleases. These scientific breakthroughs have the capacity to kick out a selective gene and insert the desired gene instead, or even design a gene from a scratch. This technological revolution has accelerated myriad discoveries in field of human gene therapy, drug modification, precision genetic medicine, disease modeling, and medical pathology studies. Furthermore, advances in synthetic biology has empowered us to control pathogen’s innate programming language and install genetic logic gates to generate microbes with desirable functions. Forcing the biology to behave like electronics, microbes equipped with reliable genetic logic gates can have an entire genome ‘boot up’. Re-programming and genetic mixing of different living cells has paved a smooth road for development of binary biological weapons and highly infectious micro-organism. In a study, a strain of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis was re-programmed to combat malignant cells (Anderson, et. al, 2006). In an engineered bacterial cell, OR logic gates were synthesized which stimulated the production of the drug in the presence of some disease marker (Brophy & Voigt, 2014). Thus, it is not difficult for a non-state actor to develop bio or binary weaponry and achieve his bellicose missions against other states.
Whilst breakthrough advances in the realm of microbial biotechnology and comparative genomics, it is imperative to envisage proliferation and use of new biological weapons for war contingencies and terrorist events. Pugnacious nationalist leaders and imperialistic war heads may persevere in seeking them for hegemonic motives. For such a risk, the Centers for Disease Control has grouped over 30 potential bioterrorism agents (micro-organisms and toxins ) into three threat categories on the basis of lethality and transmissibility. First priority group includes agents like Bacillus anthracis, Ebola, Lassa, Clostridium botulinum toxin. The second list includes pathogens with less morbidity rate i-e Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, Brucella species, Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens, E.coli O157:H7, Salmonella species. Whereas, the list C focuses on the emerging pathogens which could be engineered for mass dissemination due to their availability, easy production and high mortality rates. It includes Nipah virus and hantavirus. A group of elite scientists in United States, JASON group, had categorized futuristic techniques that could design lethal genetically modified organisms. These included:
- Binary biological weapons
- Designer genes
- Gene therapy as a weapon
- Stealth viruses
- Host-swapping diseases
- Designer diseases
Next generation bioweapons developed by integrating genetic engineering and computational biology is the weaponry par excellence. Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, an infectious disease physician and the highest ranking detector of the Biopreparat program (Russia), published Biohazard, a detailed account of his experience. He disclosed that along with Soviet biologists, he had prepared Biopreparat’s first vaccine resistant tularemia bomblet as a bioweapon. His team had also boosted the potency of the anthrax strain 836 and called it the ‘battle strain’. Dr. Alibek confided that Russian scientists had improved many of these deadly strains to evade the immune system and existing treatments. In May 1998, Alibek testified before the U.S. Congress that in Soviet’s opinion, the best biological agents were those which had no antidote. And those agents for which vaccines or treatment existed, antibiotic-resistant or immunosuppressive resistant variants were designed. In early 1990s, chimeras of VEE (Venezuelan equine encephalitis), Ebola, and Marburg genes inserted into smallpox virus were developed by Russian biologists. Chimeras are man-made viruses, engineered by injecting genes from one virus to another, to make even a virulent viral strain. In 1997, Russian scientists had published a research in a British journal Vaccine, in which they had transferred genome of the bacteria Bacillus cereus into Bacillus anthracis cultures, rendering the anthrax bacteria strain resistant to Russian anthrax vaccine.
Exponential discoveries in the biotechnology domain have rendered biological weapons exceptional in their invisibility, transmissibility as well as potency. Engineering of these agents targets at creating encumbrance to military responses, crippling the socio-economic stability and pulverize the government on the global podium, leaving the healthcare system naked and dilapidated. Also, Geneva Protocol signed in 1925 has proved itself to be a ‘toothless’ treaty as it does not ensured any verification or compliance even after banning the bacteriological methods of warfare. However, amalgamation of microbial biotechnology with immuno-informatics can put forward significant countermeasures against these infectious war agents. These include elucidating on the human genome, boosting the human immune system, understanding of viral and bacterial genomes and how human body responds to an infection. Rapid detection of the bio-agent by highly sensitive and advanced diagnostics can be done by latest technologies such as CRISPR SHERLOCK and DETECTR which may take even less than an hour. Researchers are also focusing on the commercialization of nano-theranostics and micro-chips for the fast and accurate detection of infectious agents. Also, there is a huge demand of the time for the development of new vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral drugs which is now a lot easier after the advent of techniques like reverse vaccinology and subtractive genomics.
Moreover, in the view of great misfortune we face today in the form of pandemic, it is evident that the economic expansion has outperformed the ethical scientific development. Incessant US-China squabbling over the origin of virus at the extreme time of crisis has made covid-19 to become rather a political football. All of the ‘politicking’on, when multitudes of infected humans are out of ventilators, pummeled by poverty and grieved by the sickness. Seams that were loosening long before the sudden eruption of the virus are now ripping apart even quicker. The ‘Chi-merica’ imbroglio has not only stymied the trade agreements in the times of severe crisis, but has also augmented deeper world divide in terms of sanctions and vaccine monopoly. What is more worrisome about living in this ‘Biological Century’ is the intensity of threat one feels by the clandestine acts of bioterrorism. Keeping in mind the heightened capabilities of the scientists to manipulate DNA segment, it raises the question of creation of such vaccine resistant strains which could mutate resulting in a specie for which no antidote could be developed in the future, putting forth dreadful consequences. This leaves us with some serious queries. Is covid-19 pandemic just a start towards a new world order? Have humans really equip themselves to fight a bio-warfare? Will black biotechnology consider the bio-security challenges before the next global humanitarian crisis? Winston Churchill had once lamented’’ Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not armies but whole districts- such are lines along which science is remorselessly advancing’’. There are those who say ‘The First World War was chemical; the Second War was nuclear, and that the Third World War-God forbid-will be biological.
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About the author:
- Safa Mariyam, MPhil scholar and a researcher in Industrial Biotechnology, NUST, Islamabad, Pakistan.
- Member at American Society for Microbiology, ASM
- Author of ‘Nanotheranostics’. An International book publication for Springer Nature, Germany.