The internet has revolutionized the way modern populations live their lives. From communication to commerce, the internet has changed the way people fundamentally operate. This extends to the life sciences as well. Technology and equipment once only found in research laboratories or universities can now be ordered online and shipped direct to the purchaser’s doorstep.
Although there are benefits to be gained by opening the scientific world to the masses, there are also serious security concerns to which current treaties and protocols have not been able to address. Potential bioterrorists or states with biological ambitions can utilize online marketplaces to acquire the equipment, technology, genetic blueprints, and even the actual pathogens all while avoiding detection by export control regimes such as the Australia Group (AG).
Online Access to Deadly Threats
E-Markets such as Ebay or Alibaba pose an even greater challenge as the vendors sell directly to the customer and there is no third party involved. Some of the vendors on these websites are considered “low-profile actors” as they are often either individuals or small companies, which seek profits and may not ask pertinent questions regarding the sale of a particular piece of equipment. These low-profile actors are of particular concern due to the difficulty in tracing the financial transactions. Confounding factors include the minor amounts of money involved and a faster rate of completion of transactions. These transactions are able to be completed:
- At a faster rate as a result of increased competition, ease of money transfers, and access to new international courier services;
- With greater potential for anonymizing financial transactions as low-profile actors are more likely to have a greater willingness and flexibility for the use of alternative, less secure methods of payment such as Bitcoin or Dash; and
- With far greater access to vendors operating in countries with weak national export control laws.
The AG and the United Nations’ Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) – although only 30 and 40 years old, respectively – are rapidly becoming irrelevant in regards to biotechnology and the implications for bioterrorism. Technology associated with the life sciences, which can be purchased online and shipped all over the world, is developing rapidly and creating newer technologies not addressed by either entity. Six of the newer technologies of concern are: algae photobioreactors; freeze-dryer gas sterilization upgrade kits; hand-held aerosol generators; DNA kits; synthetic biology kits; and 3-D bioprinters.
Although algae photobioreactors have a legitimate use in many industries, they can also be used to create pathogens or species of algae that produce toxins. Freeze-dryer gas sterilization upgrade kits can be used to retrofit freeze dryers – the AG Biological List lists only freeze-dryers employing steam sterilization. The upgrade kits claim to possess equivalent sterilization performance to that of a freeze dryer equipped with a traditional steam-sterilization system. This is an example of a loophole within the AG since the upgrade kit is not listed.
Hand-held aerosol generators are another example of a loophole within the AG because the AG only lists aerosol generators that can be easily fitted onto an airborne platform. The new handheld aerosol generators are capable of dispersing 1- to 10-micron-size particles and can fit inside a backpack or other nondiscrete carry case.
DNA kits and synthetic biology kits both reduce the technological barriers for genetic engineering and are available online, relatively inexpensively. The 3-D bioprinters can be used to print tissues on which to test compounds or agents and evaluate their effects. The printers can be used to accelerate the discovery of new compounds and improve toxicity models to predict the compounds or agents’ effects on humans.
Emerging Biological Threats
The explosion in the popularity of synthetic biology, “do-it-yourself” biology, and biohacking are ushering in a new era of biological weapons. Although the biological threats of the past still pose real threats, the new age of bioterrorism presents even greater challenges as pathogens are genetically modified and engineered beyond what they were originally capable of. The JASON Group, a scientific advisory group that advises the U.S. government on sensitive scientific and technological issues, conducted a 1997 study (described in Biotechnology: Genetically Engineered Pathogens [The Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series No. 53]) predicting the future of biological threats. They generated six categories of biologically engineered pathogens that could pose a serious threat to society. The six categories of potential threats are binary biological weapons, designer genes, gene therapy as a weapon, host-swapping diseases, stealth viruses, and designer viruses.
A binary biological weapon is comprised of two segments, or parts, that individually can be handled safely. However, once combined, this weapon becomes lethal or increases in virulence. This type of research and development was undertaken by the Russians to create a more virulent and antibiotic-resistant form of plague. They were able to create a less virulent strain that was safer to handle and store. However, upon deployment, it was converted into a more lethal, antibiotic-resistant strain. Due to the intentionally benign nature of the two separate components, binary weapons can be easily and discretely transported, decreasing their signature footprint and making detecting and tracking more difficult.
The breakthrough in biotechnology and synthetic biology has made the creation of “designer genes” a reality. Utilizing gene splicing, genes can be inserted into another organism altering its original genetic properties. This can create organisms that are more virulent or are resistant to medical countermeasures. Given the ease in which genes and genomes can be acquired, this particular bioweapon could pose the greatest threat based on the ability to choose genes to combine and attributes to enhance. Although not done for nefarious purposes, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook were able to download a genetic map of polio from the internet, purchase strands of DNA that corresponded to the polio virus, and artificially synthesize a “live” polio virus. The virus that they created was able to paralyze and kill the mice injected with the synthesized virus.
Gene therapy is used to treat genetic diseases by identifying bad genes and replacing them with good genes as a means of restoring health and function to the afflicted individual. Scientists use vectors – commonly genetically modified viruses – to deliver these healthy genes in the body. Although gene therapy has had success in animal trials, it also highlighted how it could be hijacked for nefarious purposes. Researchers utilized gene therapy in an experiment while working with the mousepox virus. Instead of the intended outcome, they inadvertently engineered a mousepox virus that was 100 percent lethal in unvaccinated mice and 60 percent lethal in mice that had been vaccinated. The genetically modified virus attacked the immune system of the mice and killed them. This has serious implications for the human smallpox virus as the same modification could create the same lethality rate in humans as was seen in the mice.
Host-swapping diseases are those that jump from a natural host to a new host where it mutates or picks up other genes. This is already seen in diseases such as bats with Ebola and rodents with hantavirus. Many of these diseases are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as Category A agents and are known to be highly lethal to humans. “Do-it-yourself” biotechnology, dual-use equipment, and the fact that these pathogens can be found in nature can potentially make these pathogens easier for acquisition and manipulation.
Stealth & Designer Viruses
Two more futuristic and technologically challenging, albeit still possible, weapons are stealth and designer viruses. A stealth virus is similar to gene therapy as it uses a vector to enter and infect the body. However, instead of causing an immediate reaction in the body, it lies dormant until triggered by an internal or external stimulus. An example would be a virus that is engineered to cause apoptosis upon activation by a specific trigger such as a routine medication. A person could unknowingly set off the virus merely by taking his or her daily medication.
The designer gene concept starts by determining the desired result and builds a pathogen around the desired outcome. A designer gene differs from a designer virus in that it irrevocably alters a person’s DNA. A designer virus is introduced via a vector and actions can be taken to mitigate the damage or, in some instances, to cure. To utilize a designer gene as a weapon, scientists would determine the symptoms or effects they want to induce and utilize synthetic biology and technology such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) to manipulate an organism’s DNA to design a pathogen that would have that intended effect on the body. Advances in gene editing and sequencing have used CRISPR technology to more easily target and edit specific genes. Traditional gene sequencing was used on a limited number of animals such as mice and rats; however, CRISPR can be used on any organism to include humans. CRISPR is touted as the potential cure to genetic diseases via genetic engineering and the ability to modify abnormal genes, but it could also be used for much more nefarious purposes. Creating designer genes and viruses and stealth viruses would be more difficult, although not impossible, in the near future and would be much more difficult to detect.
One of the challenges facing the intelligence and law enforcement community with regard to the ability to collect, analyze, and accurately assess biological weapons programs conducted by states and/or terrorist groups is a fundamental lack of scientific understanding about these programs. Analysts are trained to detect anomalies or other indicators and warnings surrounding a particular threat. However, biological weapons programs are much more difficult to detect based on the nature of the programs, which are usually folded into legitimate research or are conducted on a smaller scale with a less noticeable footprint.
In August 2015, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Health Security conducted a survey of 59 experts in the field of biosecurity. Of those surveyed, most believed that the intelligence agencies would be unlikely to provide actionable information or warnings prior to a biological attack. Of the 59 experts polled, 53 thought there would be a 50-percent or lower probability that such a warning would occur prior to an attack. Only a few participants felt that there had been improvements in the detection capabilities against biological weapons programs. Major hurdles identified in the survey were: “the difficulties inherent in detecting and tracking biological weapons capabilities due to: the intrinsic dual-use nature of biology; the ease of concealing preparations for a biological attack; limitations in expertise and investment in biological threats by the IC [intelligence community]; and past experiences of the challenges associated with intelligence collection against biological threats.”
Much to the nation’s detriment, the intelligence community – like most other entities designed to monitor and prevent biological weapons proliferation – is not keeping pace with rapidly developing technological advances.