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Genetic Research And Biological Weapon: Problems And Risks

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The end of the Cold War has reduced the threat of a global nuclear holocaust, but also was accompanied by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world, including the proliferation of biological weapons (BW) and bioterrorism.

The international framework for combating the spread of biological weapons and improvement of biosecurity laid down in the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction”, which is a key element of global disarmament processes. At present, due to the emergence and the growth of a global threat of international terrorism, its importance has become even acuter.

Today, one of the main challenges to international security is preventing terrorists or their backers from acquisition or development of biological weapons, including the related equipment, technology, and materials. However, the intensive development of the life sciences (biotechnology, genetic engineering, cloning, etc.) increases the possibility of new types of such weapons and is an additional risk factor for their uncontrollable spreading.

Understanding this fact leads to increased international efforts in order to develop joint mechanisms to counter this threat, including the development of the diverse nature and content of proposals aimed at strengthening of biosafety.

The History of the Creation and Use of Biological Weapons

The idea of using pathogens as weapons arose because infectious diseases carried away many lives and epidemics, related to war caused heavy losses among the troops, prejudging the outcome of battles and sometimes even entire campaigns.

For example, out of the 27,000 British soldiers, who took part in 1741 aggressive campaigns, in Mexico and Peru, 20,000 died from yellow fever. From 1733 to 1865 during the war in Europe about 8 million people were lost, although combat losses were only at 1.5 million, and 6.5 million people died of infectious diseases. The history of wars in the past knows other similar examples.

The epidemic that arose in the time of war in the rear among the population also had serious consequences, leading to disorganization of industry, transport and the state apparatus as a whole.

Today, infectious diseases still can have a significant impact on the course of the fighting. For example, the American invaders during the war against Vietnam suffered from infectious disease breaks down, which carried away lives of the soldiers and officers up to 3 times more than soldiers that were killed and wounded (A Brief History of Chemical and Biological Weapons).

Since ancient times, the main advantages and disadvantages of biological weapons were known. The first are the low cost and ease of use, combined with sufficient efficiency with little protection, and a strong psychological impact. To the second, it is difficult to predict the consequences of use.

The use of bacteriological weapons continued throughout the Middle Ages and the new time. During the wars between France and Britain and allied Indian tribes in North America are known, for example, such barbaric acts as the spread of Indian blankets, by which people ill with smallpox were covered. Indians bear smallpox much harder than Europeans and; therefore, the death rate was extremely high (Bozeman, Dilbero & Schauben, 2012).

First deliberate and systematic development of such weapons started only in the early twentieth century, using the achievements of Biological Sciences, a higher level of knowledge about the nature and the ways of spreading pathogens. During the First World War, the Kaiser's Germany had already made several attempts, such as sabotage the use of biological means.

In the years before the Second World War, the most intense in the field of biological weapons were Japanese militarists. In occupied Manchuria, they created two main research centers (units ? 731 and 100); these centres, along with the research and production departments, were also testing base, where the test of biological agents was carried out not only on laboratory animals, but prisoners of war and the civilian population of China, as well (Harris, 1994).

Since 1941, the U.S. has conducted work on creation, and the possible military use of biological agents, a specialized military research service; therefore, built research laboratories, experimental laboratories in Mississippi, production facility for biological weapons and their storage in the state Arkansas, a test polygon in Utah, as well as several other objects. Most work on biological weapons was embraced with the strictest secrecy (Ghosh, Tushar, et al 2002).

Genetic engineering has played a large role in the history of biological weapons and provided enormous potential for increased virulence by introducing genes, which can increase the production of pathogens or toxins. Thus, pathogens and toxins can be produced 100 times more per cell than with strains of natural origin. Cells, which do not produce toxic matters, can be modified so that they are capable to produce toxins for the development of biological weapons. On the other side, the known pathogen or toxinc matters can be inactivated genetically for the development of opposing vaccine. The cells can also be modified to be able to produce antibodies for passive immunization directly against specific infectious elements. As for the immune system of the human body, many biological weapons depend on the principle of antibodies, which are reacting with antigens protective layer of pathogenic viruses or bacteria. Thus, the modified non-pathogenic substances could be used to mask the immune substance detector and the human immune system, and thus increase the effectiveness of the virus.

Overall viability of the pathogen at differenct atmospheric temperature, UV light and dry air can also be genetically improved. To increase the stability of the virus propagation, certain nutritional supplements are used. Controlled pathogen resistance allows them to survive in difficult environmental conditions. Also, there is the potential for the development of the so-called “conditional suicide gene” that can program the system to death, following a predetermined number of replications of the virus in the environment. Thus, the contamination can be inhabited again after a certain time (Gorka & Sullivan, 2002).

Methods of biological warfare, as a rule, are missile warheads, aerial bombs, artillery shells and mines, packages (bags, boxes, containers) which are dropped from aircraft, devices that disperse insects from aircraft, sabotage techniques.

In some cases, the spread of infectious diseases of the enemy may leave at the commencement of the infected household items: clothing, food, cigarettes, etc. The disease in this case can occur through direct contact with contaminated objects. It is possible also the deliberate abandonment of infectious patients during the withdrawal so that they are the source of infection for the troops and the public. When breaking the munitions filled with a bacterial formulation bacterial cloud of tiny airborne droplets of liquid or solid particles is formed. Cloud, spreading by the wind, dissipates and settles to the ground, forming the infected area, the area of which depends on the number of recipes, its properties and wind speed.

Here are the main milestones in the history of biological weapons:

• 1763 - The first concrete historical fact of biological weapons in the war - the deliberate spread of smallpox among Native American tribes. American colonizers forwarded to their camp blankets infected with the causative agent of smallpox. The epidemic of smallpox was spread among Indians.

• 1934 - German saboteurs charged with an attempt to infect the underground in London, but this version is untenable, because, at that time, Hitler viewed England as a potential ally.

• 1939-1945 - Japan: Manchurian Detachment 731 to 3 thousand people, as part of testing - in combat operations, in Mongolia and China. Also, plans are in the areas of Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Ussuriysk Chita. These data formed the basis for development in the heart of the U.S. of military bacteriological Fort Detrick (Maryland) in exchange for protection from prosecution members of Detachment 731. However, military combat result of strategic use was more than modest: According to the International Scientific Commission to investigate the facts of bacteriological warfare in Korea and China, the number of victims of artificially induced plague from 1940 to 1945 was about 700 people. There was even less than the number slaughtered in the development of prisoners (Baker, 2002).

• According to Soviet data, during the Korean War, the U.S. used biological weapons against North Korea (“Only in the period from January to March 1952 in 169 districts of the DPRK have been 804 cases of the use of bacteriological weapons (in most cases - bacteriological bombs) that caused the epidemic disease”). A few years after the war, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Vyacheslav Ustinov examined the available data and concluded that the American use of biological weapons could not be confirmed (Harris, 1987).

• According to some researchers epidemic of anthrax in Sverdlovsk in April 1979 was caused by a leak from the lab Sverdlovsk-19. The official version of the cause of the disease was the meat of infected cows. Another version - that the operation was a U.S. secret services (Harris, 1987).

In autumn 2001, a letter containing white powder started to come to the offices of the U.S. Senate. When there was a rumor that the envelopes containing spores of deadly bacteria Bacillus anthracis, causing anthrax panic. Anthrax letters infected 22 people and killed five.

Because of the high mortality rate, and resistance to environmental change, anthrax is also classified as a category of biological weapons of Class A bacterium lives in the soil, and often animals grazing on it usually come into contact with the spores of the bacteria during the search for food. A person can also become infected with anthrax spores by touching, breathing or swallowing it (Alexander, 2010). 

Today's Prospects of Biological Weapons. Genetic and Bacteriological Research: Benefits and Risks

Progress in the development of nuclear weapons was the sentence for the other types of weapons of mass destruction, and the main reason for the leading military powers of the world have gone to ban biological followed with the ban for chemical weapons.

However, this prohibition does not mean the end of research in this field. Biological weapons with the development of biotechnology are made available to an increasing number of countries, some of which cannot resist the temptation to use a weapon of mass destruction, for some of their goals. Therefore, most of the developed countries maintain its military microbiological facilities and laboratories designed to protect its own population from possible biological attack.

Now dozens of countries around the world possess such an arsenal, which would be enough to destroy all life on the planet.

Soviet Union and then Russia from 1972 to 1992 worked on the development of biological weapons program. However, in April 1992, Boris Yeltsin, in the framework of international agreements limited this program. Russia has pledged to reduce the staff to 50% whereas the United Nations to provide information on the types of biological weapons. It turned out that, over the years of the program to develop biological weapons, scientists had to work over the prospects of botulinum toxin, anthrax, brucellosis, plague, tularemia, typhoid fever, Q fever. Experts say that the outcome of Russian scientists is the development of genetically-modified agent of plague.

U.S. formally, since 1970, does not carry out the development and research in the biological area. However, the law of the country permits the use of these dangerous weapons in the event of the need for protection of the country. Similarly, the indigenous population of the U.S. is affected by the use of biological weapons, the Europeans - the number of Indians to halve the epidemic of smallpox. In August 1767, Jerry Amherst, British general, used by the infected blankets what the indigenous population, which has helped the French.

The first attempt of mankind to take strong legal framework to use biological weapons was Convention signed in 1925, in the Geneva, which prohibits the use of biological weapons during the war. The two countries did not accede to the Convention - Japan and the United States.

Only in 1972, due to the efforts of the governments of 22 states, the new treaty was ratified; now it is known as the Convention on Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. It entered into force in 1975. The Convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and acquisition of biological agents that could be used as weapons and, in fact, biological weapons. Currently, the Convention has 143 countries. Every 5 years the agreement is revised.

What happens when scientists began to delve into the genetic structure of harmful organisms, altering it?

In Greek and Roman mythology, a chimera – is a combination of the body of a lion, goat, and a snake in a terrible shape. Artists of the late Middle Ages often used this image to illustrate the complex nature of evil. In modern genetic science, chimera exists and contains the genes of a foreign body. Given its name, it is natural to assume that all chimeric organisms must be horrific examples of human intervention in nature to achieve their nefarious ends. Fortunately, it is not. One such “chimeras”, combining the genes of the common cold and polio, can help in the treatment of brain cancer.

However, it is clear that the abuses of these scientific advances are inevitable. Geneticists have discovered new ways to increase the lethality of biological weapons such as smallpox and anthrax by a special adjustment of their genetic structure. Combining genes, however, scientists can create a weapon that can cause the development of the two diseases simultaneously. In the late 1980s, Soviet scientists were working on the project, “Chimera”, in which they studied the possibility of combining smallpox and Ebola (Klietmann et al. 2001).

Other possible scenarios of abuse are the creation of several strains of bacteria that require certain triggers. Such bacteria subside for a long time while again not become active by using “stimulus”. Another option of chimeric biological weapons  is the impact of the two components of the bacterium to bring it to work effectively. Such a biological attack would not only lead to higher mortality of people, but it can undermine public confidence in the health initiatives, such as humanitarian workers and members of the government.

Works that may be of interest from the standpoint of creating a “biochemical weapons” are linked to a comprehensive study of the structure, properties and mechanisms of action of peptide hormones, hormone receptors, “growth factors”, biochemical processes of feelings, emotions, among others. Publications on this topic showing significant militarily end effect caused by disorder of action of bio-regulators are extremely rare but quite revealing. For example, in 1990 a group of British biochemists discovered and explored bioregulator of proteinaceous nature, which is related to the emergence of a perceived sense of fear and panic.

The ability of a substance to cause people to fear and panic, of course, is of considerable military importance, and the substance may be a prototype of a new chemical agent that outputs the time-steps. According to G. Pearson, to prevent the action of bio-regulators it is needed to create funds for health protection, and it will be one of the closest and extremely difficult problems in the field of protection from this form of chemical weapons (Grabenstein, Downs & Dotson, 2000).

Many organizations around the world are engaged in work today in identifying distinctive genes. Currently, there are, for example, about 50 human ethnic groups, distinguishable at the genetic level. This means that, if there had been genetic weapon in the hands of terrorists, a whole ethnic group can be under the threat of physical extinction. The British Medical Association (BMA) has warned that the genetic weapon can destroy even some subgroups within the ethnic groups. The reality of a genetic weapon openly is proved by professionals of BMA: “In the next decade genetic weapon of mass destruction can be created. Rapidly progressive development of genetics can in the near future cause ethnic cleansing of the unprecedented scale” - says the report of the association (Lederberg, 2009).

In August 2002, the UN urgently sent a team of doctors and scientists to Madagascar, from the French Pasteur Institute for the study of an epidemic of unknown diseases. Symptoms of the disease that hit over 2,000 people and claimed the lives of 157 Madagascans were similar to symptoms of the common cold. The symptoms were a headache with an instant violation of the intestine. However, what is even more alarmed UN staff  was the observation that the epidemic, the first outbreak of which was awarded in June, affects mostly people of the same ethnic group. Apparently, scientists then faced just genetic testing of ethnic weapons (Knobler et al. 2002).

In 1990, scientists believed that the human genome (code proteins) will be decrypted before 2025. However, scientific organizations in the U.S. and UK completed the program “Human Genome” (computer decoding of human DNA) much earlier. Further to this, they deciphered the genome structure of dozens of pathogenic bacteria. As we can guess, most of the results of “Genome” program allows to work on a new generation of high-precision genetic weapon that will appear in the next 5-10 years. Now genetic engineering is progressing towards revealing the mechanism of action of toxins and ensuring the production of operating selectively toxic products, no different from the usual, without time-consuming genetic examination. Today, to the place of “Genome” comes a new program, “Proteome”, on decryption and study purpose and interactions of proteins, opening the way to get the absolute weapon, allowing for any given time - from a few hours to a dozen years - systematically destroy any human population, given the key genetic grounds, without fear of possible retaliation (Christopher et al 2007).

From the above, it is easy to imagine with what humanity will face in the near future, if not properly conduct the identification and control of illegal research in this area, in other words, if these works are not halted. The major threat from genetic weapon is the development of genetic technology in the private sector and the lack of information about whether to use genetic technologies in preparation of supplied food (such products are called transgenic) and medicines. World grain market is controlled by five multinational corporations that determine the prices and volumes of deliveries of grain to different countries, and the market for all varieties of vegetable oil (a concern). All of these companies carry out active research in the field of genetic engineering and organize large-scale campaigns, touting benefits of transgenic (genetically modified) foods.

The effects of genetic weapons can be truly disastrous and not accidentally disturb the aggressive-minded “minds” around the world. By the admission of American Scientists, 90% of research in molecular biology and genetics at any time can be converted to create genetic weapons. Thus, there is a document that came from the U.S. Naval Research Directorate, which proposes to grow genetically modified insects that would corrode roads and runways in enemy territory, and deliberately destroy the metal parts, coatings, fuels and lubricants in military equipment and auxiliary equipment (Ghosh, Tushar et al 2002).

It is known that a group of scientists has already patented microorganisms that decompose polyurethane contained in the paint, which covers ships and planes. Other military biotech lab is developing “antimaterial biocatalyst” that destroys fuel and plastics.

Thus, once again, we have to state that the human making unique discoveries in genetics, as in the nuclear field, once again invented a new method of self-destruction. Today, more than ever the question is crucial - how to minimize the harm, which “progress” in the field of high technologies carries, in particular, in the field of molecular biology and genetic engineering.

While describing the steps for creating a new generation of biological weapons (Advanced Biological Warfare - abbreviated ABW), we should emphasize the role of genetic engineering technologies; through their achievements in the cutting-edge achievements, in molecular biology and molecular genetics, extended the industrial prospects of biotechnology. It is possible to solve a wide range of fundamental biological problems, treatment of hereditary diseases, the creation of a new generation of drugs, cosmetics, industrial raw material receipt, etc. In agriculture, there is booming around the application of genetic engineering technologies in the construction and development of new crop varieties. However, these transgenic foods may carry damaging biologic components.

Genetic technologies in the late 20th - early 21st century have become part of medical practice. Genetic diagnosis and counseling have become one of the types of medical care. Technologies for gene therapy and engineering develop. In the field of modern genetic technology dominates the tendency to develop technologies to design, modify the biological nature of man, in particular, the technology of genetic modification of organisms and animals, gene therapy, cloning animals.

Possibilities of modern molecular biology can also change some directional properties of a number of microorganisms used as biological weapons, which raised interest to the military and the secret services of the world.

The result is widely unfolded genetic engineering research in the world was the creation of a new industry - transgenic biotechnology - based on the design and use of transgenic organisms.

In the U.S., there are now about 2,500 firms that operate in the field of genetical engineering. Each firm employs about dozens of highly qualified specialists, who design transgenic organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants, insects and animals. If the created organizms have the potential to generate a profit, the company puts its shares on a stock exchange, where transnational giants and mass production take it over.

Some projects produce transgenic clear practical interest in the military and security services. The mystery of dangerous military biotechnology and genetically engineered biological weapons generation dramatically change the overall global geopolitical and military situation, which, according to informed experts, reminiscent of the beginning of the “atomic age” in the 1940-1950's. (Ackerman 2000).

There is a growing interest in developing research activities in the field of civil and military technologies from such countries as China, Japan, Israel and some Arab countries, etc. At the same time, rich terrorist groups organize clandestine laboratories.


Possible biological world war soon put a large number of scientific and organizational problems. Fundamental challenge to policies of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, still remains and consists in lack of criteria for ranking potential or actual biothreats and thus ways to reduce them.

Biological threat can be coped only by an effective system of international control in conjunction with appropriate measures of health, which currently are not developed, and their appearance in the near future is expected.

Evaluation of the trends of global threats of biological weapons proliferation has some features in comparison with other weapons of mass destruction. This is due to many factors, including such as the lack of accepted definition of “biological weapons” and other associated concepts. That is why the subject of biosafety are dangerous pathogens and toxins that are widely used for peaceful purposes for the production of diagnostic and prophylactic drugs, but with properties suitable for use in biological weapons, as well as technologies that have a dual purpose. Based on the presence and state of scientific, technical and technological capacities of different countries, it is necessary to evaluate the likelihood of each possible state of efforts to create biological weapons, and be proliferators, although often such assessments are subjective and the corresponding political bias, depending on the preference of the evaluators.

There exists an evident the need to develop the concept of risk assessment as a systematic approach in order to obtain sufficiently clear and adequate results, suitable for quick decision-making on biosafety, including at international level. In general, concept of risk assessment should take into account features of the calculations for the four risk groups: infections, biokatastrofy, bioterrorism and genetic engineering, for each of which biorisks detection methods shall be determined, technology evaluation and how to control them. Biorisk sense is not necessarily to eliminate risk (which is nearly impossible), but to identify the most critical risks and manage them.

In the whole, the problems raised in this paper, require their systems analysis in the monitoring mode with the involvement of academia in order to assess current events and the correction of the measures taken to reduce risks of biosafety based on forecasts of future developments in the field of biosafety.

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