From smallpox infected blankets to missiles armed with anthrax spore bombs, the United States has come a long way in developing biological and chemical weapons capable of inflicting devastating and numerous casualties on populations. The United States government has supported unethical experimentation, stockpiling, and usage of biological and chemical weapons in the past and continues to experiment with them, claiming to be protecting its citizens. With the looming threat of bioterrorism in the 21st century, is the United States government doing enough to adequately protect its citizens, and can we even really trust their supposedly inoffensive experiments?
The topic of existential risks, or risks that pose large negative consequences to humanity, have always been of interest to me. I have researched various existential threats including AI and nanotechnology, but in this project I chose to focus on threats related to biological warfare and bioterrorism and more specifically, US involvement in biowarfare and the measures that can be taken to protect citizens.
History of the Problem:
Biowarfare and bioterrorism can be traced as far back as the 6th century BC, when Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with a fungus that caused convulsions when ingested (NPR). However, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that rapid industrialization began to drastically change warfare; Bayonets and cannons were replaced with bombs and chemical weapons. During WWI, German forces used the highly contagious B. mallei agent to infect the livestock of Allied countries along with lethal phosphene and mustard gases to kill enemy troops (NPR). After WWI, the highly destructive capabilities of biological and chemical weapons became apparent to other world powers and many deemed it necessary to stockpile biological and chemical weapons as a method of deterrence. During this time, Japan established what came to be known as Unit 731 in Manchuria. Operating in secret throughout WWII, Unit 731 captured Chinese civilians to use as test subjects for biological and chemical weapons research and experimentation (Barras). Test subjects were injected with various diseases, which were often disguised as vaccines, and observed as these diseases progressed. Doctors even performed vivisection, removing organs from alive and conscious test subjects, in order to better observe the effects of the induced agents (Kang). After WWII, these experiments were revealed to the world, and the United States, looking to improve its own biological and chemical weapons program, granted amnesty to Japan in exchange for full disclosure of their research (Kang). Is it possible that the United States would use this information to initiate a similar secret program of their own?
The United States’ measures to counter bioterrorism have always been questionable and unethical. At Fort Detrick’s biological research center in Maryland, “harmless” organisms were tested in ventilation systems, subway systems, and public water supplies in order to find the most effective way to infect populations (Franz et. al). These numerous tests caused a limited, but nonetheless significant, number of deaths related to released bacteriological agents. In September 1950, an aerosol vulnerability test was conducted in the San Francisco Bay area. Two species of bacteria closely related to Anthrax (yet less dangerous), Bacillus globigii and Serrata marcensus, were dumped via aircraft (Franz et. al). This led to an increased number of Serratia infections in the Bay area in the following years, and even resulted in fatalities of highly susceptible persons. While experiments on unsuspecting populations were terminated by President Richard Nixon in 1969, biological weapons programs in the United States continued.
The Current Day Problem
In the 21st century, the threat of chemical and biological weapons takes on a new form: terrorism. Recently, various doctors, bacteriologists, and other professionals with experience in the field of biotechnology have used their knowledge to simulate bioterrorist attacks. For example, starting in December 1964, a physician with training in bacteriology gave fruit cakes poisoned with dysentery and typhoid to over 120 coworkers and patients because he felt that he was being discriminated against, resulting in over a dozen fatalities (Atlas). In February 1970, a postgraduate student in parasitology in Canada almost killed 4 roommates with parasite Ascaris lumbricoides after a rent dispute (Atlas).These cases show that biological weapons in particular are more accessible to individuals than any other weapons of mass destruction, as necessary materials are available for purchase legally in many cases and are especially easy to obtain under the pretense of medical research (Hsin). In addition, many recent studies have shown that due to online accessibility, only a high school or undergraduate level education is needed to develop weaponized biological agents (Torres). This greatly increases the probability of terrorist attacks using biological agents, due to the accessibility and ease of use.
Here is a game that simulates how a terrorist might synthesize a particular virus and design it to infect and kill the most people: Pandemic II
Additionally, the cost of materials needed for DNA sequencing to potentially create a weaponized biological agent is drastically decreasing, as demonstrated by this graph:
Contributing to the concern of bioterrorism, various researchers have proved through experimentation how easy it might be for a terrorist to create a biological weapon with very limited resources. In the case of the infamous mousepox experiment, Australian researchers inadvertently created a 100% fatal, vaccine resistant version of the mousepox virus. More recently, researchers used genetic engineering to create strains of H5N1 that were airborne and easily transmissible among ferrets, proving that a human strain of transmissible H5N1 would be possible (Selgelid). In all of these cases, the research, including methods and materials, was published online and in science magazines, making it easily accessible to anyone, even though the studied agents, such as influenza, smallpox, and polio, have been responsible for epidemics and hundreds of millions of deaths throughout history (Atlas). The ability to recreate these diseases in more transmissible and virulent forms using easily accessible information is extremely enticing to terrorists, and if these agents fell into the wrong hands, the effects would be catastrophic.
The disastrous impacts of bioterrorism on citizens throughout the world have been increasingly prevalent in recent years, and will continue to rise if no preventive measures are taken. One of the first large scale bioterrorist attacks in the United States occurred in 1984 at the hands of the Rajneeshee cult. In an attempt to influence a local election, the Oregon-based cult infected salad bars with salmonella to incapacitate voters, successfully sickening over 700 individuals. In 1955, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the chemical nerve agent sarin in Tokyo subways, blinding, paralyzing and killing innocent citizens. In 2001, on the same day as the 9/11 attacks, letters containing Anthrax spores were mailed to U.S. reporters and senators, resulting in 5 deaths. The specific strain of Anthrax used in the attack was traced back to research at Fort Detrick, and one of the United States’ own biodefense researchers, Bruce Edwards Ivins, is the suspected perpetrator (Atlas).
Ivins is just one of the many examples of how the U.S. biological defense program is both ineffective and exacerbating the problem of bioterrorism. Following the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, President Bush shifted the focus to mainly secretive work at Fort Detrick in Maryland that involved creating and testing the effectiveness of weaponized diseases as a way to “prepare” for an attack. This research involves testing weaponized microbes and genetically engineered biological agents, simulating bio attacks, and testing aerosol dispersal equipment and techniques (Stolar). However, it is impossible to predict exactly what type of agent and strain is to be used in an attack, and therefore developing and testing agents as a means of biodefense is ineffective and useless in most cases. Additionally, this research involves stockpiling biological agents in quantities which have no justification for peaceful purposes (Atlas). Additionally, Bush’s post 9/11 policy of executing mainly offensive research gives scientists the ability to access and experiment with dangerous weapons, which seems counterintuitive given the suspected perpetrator of the Anthrax attacks was a biodefense scientist at Fort Detrick, and there has been a history of scientists using their knowledge for malicious intentions. These ineffective policies in regards to biodefense are making the country less safe rather than protecting it, and a drastic shift in approach is needed.
Bioterrorism poses a formidable threat to American citizens both from foreign countries and individual terrorist groups. The United States government has not only failed to implement adequate measures for protecting citizens against these attacks, but has made the problem worse by violating international agreements and funding defensive research instead of public health infrastructure. For a safer future in world affairs, the current policies regarding bioterrorism must change. First of all, the United States government must terminate all of its biological weapons programs that are in violation of the international agreements and increase the security of research facilities. As a dominant world power, the US needs to set a good example for the rest of the world by refraining from stockpiling biological weapons to avoid establishing itself as a threat to other countries. In addition, security measures for biological weapons development facilities should be equal to security measures used for nuclear weapons. These measures must include proper screening of scientists for mental health issues as well as limiting the number of individuals involved. Access to weaponized diseases used in research should be split up so that no one individual can have full access without the permission of others involved.
Generally, the United States government must focus less on the threat of specific weaponized attacks and instead focus on strengthening public health infrastructure and developing defenses that rely on integrative science. It is much more important to fund advancements in technology, specifically related to diagnosing and treating diseases that have not been studied before. Some recent advancements in the field of biotechnology such as “lab on a chip” technology and microarrays have proved successful in rapidly identifying diseases and their specific strains through genotyping (Relman). Technologies like CRISPR have also proved helpful in identifying abnormalities in genome sequences (Relman). This type of applied science is critical in creating a national defense against bioterrorism; however, these technologies are not readily available to the majority of hospitals. Additionally, many ERs are understaffed and struggling, and would be unable to provide resources for a mass influx of patients that would occur during bioterrorist attack. It is critical that hospitals are funded properly by the federal government and given an adequate amount of resources. With this additional funding, hospitals would be able to purchase these new technologies necessary for diagnosing diseases and be able to hire more doctors and staff. With more personnel, working hours and overnight shifts would be reduced, leaving doctors more alert and prepared to assess situations of mass casualties and therefore be able to save more lives. This additional funding could also provide training and resources specific to bioterrorist attacks, such as preparation for mass quarantines, as most local hospitals do not have developed bioterrorism plans. All of these initiatives require federal intervention and funding, but that does not mean that individuals cannot do their part in preventing bioterrorism.
Call to Action:
You can help by:
>donating to local hospitals and supporting the advancement of health sciences (The Bill and and Melinda gates Foundation focuses on disease research, and you can find a list of other medical research charities here)
>If you are a patient, you can work with hospitals and health care providers to point out flaws in the system and improve general safety and quality (The Agency for Healthcare Research and Equality offers a program where you can do this)
>Consider going into a medical field! Our world has an ever increasing demand for medical problem solvers. Going into science, medicine, or technology could lead to medical breakthroughs.