Germ Warfare Under the Microscope

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Biowarfare isn’t a new threat, but rather one that’s always changing. We asked MIT bioweapons expert Jeanne Guillemin to put the issue into perspective.


THE FUTURIST: How is advancing technology changing the threat of ?biological warfare in the twenty-first century?

Jeanne Guillemin: Technology by itself is not the driving force behind the threat of biological weapons. That force continues to be political. But for the sake of discussion, we can say that the technology for biological weapons is characterized by two ?levels of threat. One is residual, emanating from the old program (including those of the United States and the Soviet Union), in which the weapons potential of anthrax, ?tularemia, plague, and other infectious diseases was developed.

Many barriers exist to protect targeted populations. The political problem, which was demonstrated in the U.S. response to the 2001 anthrax letters, is that those people on the margins of mainstream society will be less well protected than those of higher social status or income.

The other threat concerns innovations in human genetics and neurology that someone could exploit for military ends in the same way that physics and chemistry begat weapons in previous centuries.

THE FUTURIST: How do you see this threat evolving in the next 10 years? The next 20 years?

Guillemin: Just as in the past, the threat of specific technical innovations will directly depend on government secrecy and on the willingness of skilled scientists to dedicate themselves to military programs that appear to be in the interests of national defense, though they defy international law. Unfortunately, history shows that the military pursuit of advantageous knowledge can lead to capabilities that are more offensive than defensive. In World War II, based on faulty estimates of German capabilities, the Allies moved forward with important germ weapon innovations that they initially claimed were for retaliation but that had inherently offensive potential. The mass production of anthrax bombs is an example. The Soviet Union covertly expanded its own program during the 1970s and 1980s, explaining to its scientific cadre that the expansion was a necessary defense against the United States.

THE FUTURIST: What are some specific actions governments could undertake to prevent an incident of bioterrorism?

Guillemin: In the last six years, the United States has invested some $44 billion in biodefense research and development, but whether this use of resources has deterred bioterror-ism is unclear. One could argue that bioterrorism itself is a kind of fiction or political construct. Since the 1990s, fears of bioterrorism have driven federal policy for domestic preparedness and homeland security. Washington officials and so-called experts on civilian biodefense have long broadcast the inevitability of a mass germ weapons attack by ?terrorists.

The drumroll-and a universal smallpox vaccination program for Americans-ceased by May 2003, after no biological weapons caches were found in Iraq. No lethal mass bioterrorist attack of any sort has ever occurred anywhere; rather, it is terrorists’ preference for conventional explosives that is demonstrated nearly daily in the news.

Still, the best place to start would be a vigorous state-by-state implementation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which outlaws the possession or development of such weapons but lacks the standing organization and verification procedures that fortify the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

THE FUTURIST: The threat of such an attack is one of those horrors that most people feel helpless in the face of. Aside from hoarding duct tape or gas masks, what are some things that individuals could do to feel more empowered in this era of growing uncertainty?

Guillemin: To feel empowered against the threat of biological weapons, individual citizens should insist on two policies: One is an effective, equitable health-care system that guarantees general protection from a range of medical threats. The other is government accountability regarding military or other programs potentially in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

Effective oversight, which should begin at home, has been largely missing from the new U.S. biodefense initiative, which involves primarily the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services. In just a few years, the realm of secrecy has expanded unrestrained. New high-containment laboratories for experimental select agent research have multiplied in the absence of regulation to protect workers and populations in adjacent communities. The profusion of bio-defense projects has been associated with scores of accidents involving ?select agents for anthrax, plague, cholera, and other diseases.

Many other countries around the globe are gaining access to sophisticated biotechnology. If they follow the current U.S. example, they might pursue ?covert research that blurs the line ?between defensive and offensive goals.

About the Interviewee

Jeanne Guillemin is a professor of sociology at Boston College and a senior fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program. She is the author of several books on biological warfare, including Biological Weapons: The History of State Sponsored Programs and the Problem of Bioterrorism (Columbia University Press, 2004). Her e-mail address is guillemin@mit. edu.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2008.


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