By: Kerry Bazany
Our nation, and indeed many of the world’s industrialized countries, is simultaneously fascinated yet horrified by the idea of bioweapons. Historically, novels such as The Stand by Stephen King, The Cobra Event by Richard Preston, and Hellfire by Chris Ryan are but a few of literary pieces that describe the terrifying possibilities of weaponized biologic agents. Cinema is no exception, with films such as “The Andromeda Strain”, “Alien”, “28 Days Later”, and “Outbreak” that showcase the potential devastation to the human population. Given that biologically engineered weapons are now a reality rather than science fiction, it poses the question of how science can ameliorate or even eradicate this threat.
The Deadliest of the Deadly
The list of virulent and deadly bioengineered agents is lengthy and continues to grow as strains of these agents mutate and adapt to changing environments, especially in response to a threat. The Department of the Army, Technology Division, has compiled a list of the most dangerous:
- Botulinum (aka botulism) is extremely potent and lethal. Modes of distribution include aerosol or water and food contamination.
- Bacillus anthracis bacteria causes anthrax and is categorized by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a Category A agent, defined as the highest risk agent, capable of producing the greatest casualties and capable of posing the most threat to national security. Anthrax is invisible, odorless and tasteless, making it an effective bioweapon.
- Aflatoxins, a number of structurally associated harmful metabolites developed by certain strains of fungi, lead to cell or organ death.
- Francisella tularemia bacterium is extremely infectious and easy to disperse. This ease of dispersion and ability to cause illness and death make this bacterium a dangerous bioweapon. The Soviet Red Army used this particular bioweapon against German troops during World War II.
- Yersinia pestis bacteria, also a Category A agent, cause pneumonic plague. It can be created in a laboratory in high quantities. Plague has been used as a weapon since the 14th century.
- Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever (Marburg HF) includes the Ebola virus. Marburg virus is also a Category A bio-warfare agent identified by the CDC. The virus can be isolated and produced as a biological weapon.
Scientific Endeavors into Bioweapon Agents
However ominous these potentially devastating agents of destruction can be, there is a measure of optimism insofar as to the intervention of scientific research into the elimination of bioweapons, particularly in the study of genetics. In a 2017 study conducted at Duke University, researchers discovered a way to disable the molecule that makes the Francisella tularemia virulent. Subsequently, it was discovered how the cluster of pathogenic genes were turned on and off. Of critical importance in this study was that antibiotics were not used. As is prevalent today, differentiating strains of bacteria have become increasingly unresponsive to the overuse of antibiotic treatments used to kill them. This promising study will require replication with other deadly bacteria to determine the efficacy of gene mapping in order to eradicate the bacteria and/or ameliorate its impact on human populations.
Implications of Bioweapons in Agriculture and why it is Relevant
When individuals discuss the potential threat of bioterrorism, they envision scenarios similar to the ones aforementioned in novels and films: that of bacteria and viruses introduced directly to the human population. This kind of possibility, though, is short-sighted. One should examine the potentiality for a bioterrorism event that could eclipse a solely human-induced event in its totality of destruction on social, economic, and environmental levels. It is called anti-agricultural bioterrorism, and here are the effects of such:
- Destabilize a government by initiating food shortages or unemployment. When agriculture is naturally, or in this case, artificially disrupted, losses of plants and/or animals would probably precipitate food shortages, skyrocketing food prices, and subsequent unemployment. This would also precipitate destabilizing effects on societal and political structures and practices. This would be particularly evident in developing nations that are dependent upon a single food crop and are therefore more vulnerable to destabilization.
- As previously stated, genetic inquiry, research, and practice continues to expand in the area of bioweapons. These endeavors make genotype-specific weapons possible. Genetic intervention continues to accelerate and could potentially lead to the construction of genotype-specific biological weapons that target agricultural species.
- Resultant losses due to the efforts to contain outbreaks necessitate the destruction of all potentially exposed host organisms, including healthy ones. With crops, thousands of acres of plants would be destroyed for containment purposes.
Who Could Benefit from an Agricultural Bio Attack?
Most likely, many individuals would immediately concur that terrorist organizations would be the benefactors of bioweapon usage. Terrorists are motivated by ideology that would constitute such an attack and would be willing to assume responsibility. Additionally, these groups could attempt to disguise the outbreak as natural or even the work of others.
Individuals that conduct business in the drug trade have financial stakes in agriculture because the very foundation of the drug industry is crop cultivation. Organized crime, with its prevalence in illegal drug manufacture and distribution, may indeed take an interest in engineering bio-criminal activities involving agricultural crops.
Agricultural corporations, including producers, processors, and shippers, could benefit immensely from the economic impacts, market share changes, and financial market effects of a successful biological attack. Many also employ expert plant pathologists or veterinarians and have large collections of pathogens.
Science as a Double-Edged Sword
It can be reasonably argued that scientific investigation bounces equally against both sides of the “dual-use” dilemma. What justifiably and presumably helps humanity can just as efficiently harm it, or even annihilate it. The development of the hydrogen bomb predominantly comes to mind. Genome research will unfold procedures that will provide richness to human life never before encountered, yet can morbidly open the path to sinister, inhumane practices. The ethical implications of such are more than can be explored in the course of this article, yet it can be concluded that where there is life there is curiosity and inquiry in all forms, for worse or for better.