Engineered pathogens: a new threat to global security

By Yun Son

In the mid 12th century, during his campaign of conquest in Italy, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa poisoned water wells of Tortona with the bodies of defeated soldiers. This was one of the earliest forms of biological warfare. (Frischknecht, 2003). Although it was not until the 19th century that microbiology started truly flourishing, with the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Biological warfare, that is the weaponization of toxins or pathogens, has been present since the dawn of human civilisation. As technological progress is made in microbiology and synthetic biology, the risk and potential impact of bioagents grow only bigger. 

Not long ago, naturally occurring pathogens were the only bioagents available. These were already powerful and destructive on their own and had marked big and small events throughout the course of history. Variola major and Bacillus anthracis, causing smallpox and anthrax respectively, are example of pathogens that have been abused in warfare, consequently leading to numerous outbreaks. However, with modern day biotechnology and progress in synthetic biology, it is now possible for pathogens to be engineered and designed. Although these technological advancements will certainly open up doors to new scientific and medical breakthroughs, it will at the same time equivocally be accompanied by new risks.

When built with the intention of harming people, engineered pathogens present a much greater threat than naturally occurring pathogens, because they are designed to be more transmissible and virulent. In many cases designer bugs are modified versions of existing pathogens. Gain-of-function experiments in which viruses are endowed with new functions have also demonstrated the threat that is posed by engineered pathogens. In 2012, Ron Fouchier and his research team managed to modify avian influenza A/H5N1. Although capable of causing death in humans, this virus was untransmissible to humans prior to Fouchier’s experiment; however, through this experiment it became airborne transmissible between mammals. If this modified virus were to be released, it would cause great damage and threaten the whole globe’s biosecurity. (Nelson, 2019)

Growing interest and research in synthetic biology has allowed scientists to create certain forms of life from scratch. Entire bacterial genomes and synthetic living cells, such as Syn 3.0., have been created in labs using base material and pared-down genomes. These technological advances have also allowed the development of recombineering (recombination mediated genetic engineering) techniques and other genome-editing technologies, notably CRISPR techniques. It is now so much easier for scientists to manipulate pathogen genomes and create designer bugs thanks to these new techniques.

In 2012, Dr Eckard Wimmer and his research team at the State University of New York demonstrated that biological weapons can now be created in labs without natural pathogens by synthesising a live poliovirus using only freely accessible genome data. In 2018, two researchers in Canada, after resurrecting horsepox from mail-ordered DNA, published their methodologies online where anybody could have access to it. This was presented as a new threat to biosecurity because it meant independent actors could easily resurrect once eradicated viruses and wreak havoc using freely accessible information. Synthetising genetic material has become easier, cost-wise and timewise, but also because of the increasing accessibility of information. The risk of misuse of such techniques is amplified as information becomes more accessible to a wide range of actors, including some who may be motivated to synthesise their own bioagents with the intention of harming people or nations.

Although this leap in technology has opened up the door to new opportunities and alternative medical treatments, it has also lowered the barrier to engineering pathogens that would be dangerously more transmissible and virulent than those found in nature. Intended or not, these experiments encompass high risks that could lead to massive outbreaks. (Nelson, 2019)

Most research is of dual use; they can be used for good and for bad. It is therefore crucial that regulations and risk management should match the pace of technological progress. However, it is well known that present day’s technology is advancing at an unprecedented and overwhelming rate. As technological progress rises exponentially, nations become more and more unprepared for potential risks that follow these scientific innovations. When it comes to biosecurity and biological warfare, governments and authorities are even more unprepared.

A big difference between biological warfare and nuclear attacks is that there are no national borders when it comes to pandemics. Released pathogens do not stay in one country but emigrate, as can be seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that taking preventative measures and aiming to mitigate risk benefits the whole globe. Unfortunately, in most cases global public goods are underprovided. Countries do not provide as many global public goods as they should. That is why the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was established in the 1970s with the aim of regulating bioweapons development.

However, when compared to nuclear and chemical weapons treaties, the BWC is very ineffective, mainly because biological weapons are trickier to regulate than nuclear or chemical weapons. For instance, when comparing nuclear weapons to nuclear power plants, there is a clear difference between the levels of enriched uranium between the two (90% and 5% respectively). It is therefore easy to tell whether a facility is being used for the purpose of creating nuclear weapons or not. When it comes to bioweapons however, there is no notable difference between the amount of resources that goes into creating bioweapons and normal research. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to regulate and put constraints on the possession of bioweapons. Even party countries to the BWC secretly continue bioweapon programs and hold them in possession. (Bressler and Bakerlee, 2018).

It is clear that as of now there are far too many loopholes in the existing regulations and that it is urgent for the world to come up with better and more effective regulations, but also new preventative measures and risk management frameworks.  

Silent but deadly, bioagents pose a great threat to humanity. As information becomes more accessible, the creation and use of new bioagents by individual or non-individual, state or non-state actors will only continue to increase. With the exponentially rising progress in synthetic biology and biotechnology, engineered pathogens will only become more and more deadly and destructive. Regulating research and promoting awareness on the risks of dual-use research could however prevent misuse of information and technology. It is therefore more than important that countries and international bodies cooperate to ensure a secure future for all humankind. 

References:

Frischknecht, F. (2003) The history of biological warfare. Human experimentation, modern nightmares and lone madmen in the twentieth century. EMBO reports. 4 Spec No(Suppl 1), S47-S52. Available from: https://www.embopress.org/doi/epdf/10.1038/sj.embor.embor849 [Accessed 29th September 2020]

Schwartzstein, P. (2019) The History of Poisoning the Well. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day Iraq, the threat to a region’s water supply is the cruelest cut of all. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-well-poisoning-180971471/ [Accessed 30th September 2020]

Nelson, C. (2019) Engineered pathogens: the opportunities, risks and challenges. The Biochemist (Lond). 41(3), 34-39. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1042/BIO04103034 [Accessed 14th September 2020]

Bressler, D. R., Bakerlee, C. (2018) “Designer bugs”: how the next pandemic might come from a lab. Why we need to take the threat of bioengineered superbugs seriously. Available from: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2018/12/6/18127430/superbugs-biotech-pathogens-biorisk-pandemic [Accessed 29th September 2020]

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