This December, the signatory nations of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will meet, as they do every five years, to discuss the state of bioweapons globally. In at least one way, the world has radically changed since they last met, in 2011. The discovery of several novel gene-editing techniques, most famous being CRISPR-Cas9, might be the scientific breakthrough of this century. It has unleashed a torrent of studies that aim to cure everything from cancer to world hunger.
But this new era of synthetic biology has a dark side. Scientific discoveries generally outpace our ability to legislate sensible limits, or even understand exactly what we’re playing with; that’s the point of experimental research, after all: to chart the unknown. The discovery last year that scientists in China have begun using gene-editing techniques on human embryos—a troubling, unprecedented step towards a sci-fi dystopia —has ignited a vigorous global debate about the limits we ought to have when manipulating biology.
The advent of CRISPR has corresponded with a widespread democratization of biology. Gene-editing kits are cheap, legal, and relatively easy to use. DIY biohacking spaces have proliferated throughout the world, teaching amateurs how to perform elementary gene-editing themselves. This approach, too, holds much promise; after all, some of this nation’s most celebrated scientific achievements were discovered by tinkering amateurs in the garage.
The monopoly on biology once held by governments and universities has been broken. Only a few years ago, the production of a bioweapon took the resources and expertise of a nation-state. Now a few dedicated terrorists could, theoretically, manipulate lethal pathogens in a DIY lab built with cheap equipment bought legally online, making the disease more potent and resistant to antidotes or vaccines.
History abounds with examples of the terrifying potential of bioweapons. Bubonic plague-infected bodies were dumped in enemy wells in the Middle Ages, or catapulted over enemy walls during siege. Blankets infected with smallpox were given to Native Americans by British Colonialists, with devastating results. Most extreme were the experiments by Imperial Japan’s infamous Unit 731. During WWII, Japan dropped ceramic “bombs” filled with bubonic plague-infected fleas over Chinese cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, including nearly 20% of the airmen who unleashed the pestilence.
The US conducted its own offensive biowarfare research from 1942 until 1969, at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It was there that the military learned how to weaponize lethal pathogens like anthrax and botulinum toxin, and how to produce them on an industrial scale.
They also learned how such weapons might be deployed. In September 1950, the Army conducted a simulated biological attack on San Francisco, unbeknownst to the public until the details were leaked to the press, years later. According to statements given during a congressional investigation, Navy vessels pulled up in the bay at night, spraying a benign—or so they thought—bacteria called Serratia marcescens from hoses on the decks. The aerosol drifted downwind over the city, into the lungs of its 800,000 residents. (11 of those citizens checked into one local hospital in the proceeding days with pneumonia caused by what doctors suspected to be Serratia marcescens. One of them died. The doctors, unaware that a military experiment was underway, considered it a mystery.)
It was one of 239 open-air tests of biological agents on the American public by the military between the ‘40s and ‘60s. 80 of those tests used live bacteria. By 1969, when Nixon ended offensive bioweapons research, the U.S. had amassed not only a formidable arsenal of pathogens, but they had also pioneered methods for how to deploy them.
Though grossly unethical and unsettling—straight out of X-Files, really—those experiments on our cities were valuable. They demonstrated that lethal doses of pathogens and toxins, released in aerosol form, could travel more than 10 miles from the release point. The U.S. military knew for sure that a bioterrorism could work because they tried it themselves. But one of the ugly, inescapable facts of military technology is that there’s no way of inventing an instrument of death without other people getting ahold of it. It always gets out.
The Biological Weapons Convention treaty, which went into effect in 1975, was a formal recognition by the international community that some things have such horrible potential they just ought not be invented at all. It was supposed to end the chapter of biological warfare, outlawing nations from developing, acquiring, stockpiling or retaining certain pathogens, except for limited samples for defensive vaccine and antidote research.
But, as with most international treaties, the BWC was rather toothless. There’s no way to verify that nations are abiding, or to what extent. It’s now known that the USSR continued its offensive bioweapons program for years after signing the pact. Even now, Russia, China and Syria are suspected of continuing such work under the auspices of defensive research.
The U.S. biodefense sector has also been accused of breaching the treaty. The turning point was the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which letters filled with the spore-forming bacteria were mailed to several Senators. Anthrax isn’t new—it has been used as a weapon since WWI—but, coming within weeks of 9/11, the attacks created a panic, and newfound urgency to confront the threat of bioweapons. It led to the creation of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Center, a unit within the Department of Homeland Security. NBACC in particular has been accused of crossing the line into offensive research, thus violating the principles of the BWC.
In a way, they’re in an impossible situation. Having vowed not to stockpile or develop deadly pathogens, they must still conduct aggressive research to stay ahead of emerging threats that no one quite understands yet. And with China playing loose with bioethics by experimenting on humans, and terrorist groups who are pleased to watch the world burn, we’re competing with rivals who will accept what we won’t.
U.S. researchers are left with no choice but to carry on innovating with pathogens: improving our—and, since things always get out, the world’s—understanding of how they work, how they can be diagnosed and treated, and how they could be improved. Essentially, drafting the blueprint for the bioweapons we fear will someday be invented, hereby inventing them. To dream of it is to make it so.
In 2014, the White House placed a moratorium on what’s known as “gain-of-function” studies on viruses like SARS, influenza and MERS. There were concerns that a well-intentioned scientist in search of a cure might create an even deadlier version of a disease using gene-editing techniques, which would then, inevitably, proliferate when they published the results, introducing yet another menace to the world. The moratorium was intended to give the government a chance to draft some regulations to review these studies.
It came after a series of high-profile slip-ups by the Center for Disease Control, in Atlanta, which houses the national stockpile of vaccines, it addition to live samples of every biological hazard known to mankind. That year, technicians there accidentally shipped a live sample of H5N1, a particularly virulent and deadly form of avian flu, to researchers as the Department of Agriculture who had requested, and were expecting, a more benign version of the disease. This came weeks after CDC technicians nearly poisoned themselves by experimenting with anthrax samples they didn’t know was live.
The potential for gene-editing techniques to engineer biological weapons of unprecedented power—coupled with the familiar shape-shifting ingenuity of nature itself, in which baleful bacteria and viruses mutate with such speed and vigor we just can’t seem to figure them out—will pose a significant challenge to the values and ethics captured in the BWC treaty. There was a reason we, as a global community, decided to close the book on biowarfare: You can’t un-invent a lethal weapon. But is it even possible to be exclusively defensive when confronting death by biology?