Biological weapons clock is ticking

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Chemical and nuclear weapons may be formidable, but the US will be sorry if it underestimates germ warfare

With the threat of chemical weapons in Syria and nuclear arms in North Korea, the risk of biological weapons has dropped off the international agenda. But evolving technologies and genetic engineering may open the door to new dangers.

Other than the "anthrax in the mail" attacks that followed 9/11, killing five people, there have been few serious attempts at biological attacks in recent years. Most global powers scaled back their biological weapons research in the 1970s, partly because of the difficulties of getting fragile bacteria and viruses to survive being dropped in bombs or missiles, or even sprayed.

Militant groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have embraced the other end of the technological spectrum, turning to basic but brutal tactics such as using a car or truck to attack pedestrians in Nice, Berlin and elsewhere.

Most scientific and security experts agree the risk remains relatively low. That may change with the proliferation of basic genetic engineering technologies, some small and cheap enough to be used at home.

A gene-editing kit, built by a former Nasa bioengineer, was marketed last year. The unscrupulous can now tamper with the DNA of bacteria or viruses to make them that much more lethal.

Regulations on biological and genetic research vary among countries - but making weapons with such techniques is largely illegal under the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention. Some experts worry, however, that recent advances may make it easier to design more effective and lethal new pathogens.

Last month, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has been warning of a biological attack since before 9/11 and has said the United States has been "damn lucky" to avoid it, called on President Donald Trump to make biodefence a priority.

A report last year from the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy at West Point concluded that ISIS was keen to acquire biological weapons. It has already used basic chemical weapons, including in the battle for Mosul, although it has been unable to inflict significant casualties with them.

Even without a deliberate attack, the threat of a pandemic is real, and organisations such as the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation are always on the lookout for signs of an outbreak. Scientists have been warning for decades that mankind is at risk of a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish influenza, which killed over 50 million people almost a century ago.

Some experts worry, however, that recent advances may make it easier to design more effective and lethal new pathogens.

The modern world has a host of techniques to fight such infections. But it also has vulnerabilities. Air travel and mass migration make it easier for infections to spread faster.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Western officials were worried that ISIS might try to take advantage. According to the West Point report, there were worries that it might attempt to get individuals infected and use them to spread the disease elsewhere.

The reality is that such a technique would have had a limited effect. Any infected individual would have become sick and been identified relatively quickly. And, as with the rest of the outbreak, infection control measures would have bought it under control.

Still, simple attacks can work. In 1984, in the US, 751 people fell ill and 45 were hospitalised, mainly in Oregon, after a religious group run by Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sprayed salmonella into food distribution areas in 10 salad bars. No one died, but it remains the largest biological attack in recent US history - and could well have been fatal if those behind it had used typhoid, as they had at one point considered.

There are other dangers. If the regime in North Korea were to collapse, some worry Pyongyang could unleash its biological arsenal, which may include smallpox.

World War I saw the rise of chemical warfare, World War II the atomic bomb. The next era-defining super weapon, some experts have warned, could be biological. - REUTERS

terrorismSyriaNorth Korea