With the threat of chemical weapons in Syria and nuclear arms in North Korea, the risk of biological weapons has largely dropped off the international agenda. But evolving technologies and genetic engineering may open the door to new dangers.
Other than the “anthrax in the mail” attacks that followed 9/11, killing five people, there have been few serious attempts at biological attacks in recent years. Most global powers scaled back their biological weapons research in the 1970s, partly because of the difficulties of getting fragile bacteria and viruses to survive being dropped in bombs or missiles, or even sprayed.
Militant groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State have largely embraced the other end of the technological spectrum, turning to basic but brutal tactics such as using a car or truck to attack pedestrians in Nice, Berlin and elsewhere.
Most scientific and security experts agree the risk remains relatively low. That may change with the proliferation of basic genetic engineering technologies, some small and cheap enough to be used at home. (This gene-editing kit, built by a former NASA bioengineer, was marketed last year.) The unscrupulous can now tamper with the DNA of bacteria or viruses to make them that much more lethal and potentially hard to treat.
Regulations on biological and genetic research vary widely between countries – but making weapons with such techniques is largely illegal under the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention. Some experts worry, however, that recent advances may make it easier to design more effective and lethal new pathogens. In February, Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned that a conflict involving such weapons could kill more people than nuclear war.
When scientists first sequenced a single human genome in 2003 – allowing them to understand what each small piece of biological coding meant – it was a vast and expensive undertaking. Now, computing power means the cost of that kind of technology – analyzing the difference between the DNA of individual humans, animals, plants and pathogens– is nose-diving by the year. Some scientists have raised the still-controversial idea that as the availability of basic genetic engineering techniques also rises, it could become easier to create new, more sophisticated weapons, perhaps targeted to the DNA of an individual or even an entire ethnic group.
Last month Senator Joseph Lieberman – who has been warning of biological attack since before 9/11 and has said the United States has been "damn lucky" to avoid it – called on President Donald Trump and Congress to make biodefense a national priority.
In a 2010 paper, former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen described how al-Qaida wanted to acquire biological weapons with roughly the same level of priority that it sought a stolen nuclear weapon. It never came close to getting either, focusing instead on more conventional attacks.
A report last year from the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point concluded Islamic State, too, was keen to acquire biological weapons. That group has already used basic chemical weapons, including in the battle for Mosul, although it has been unable to inflict significant casualties with them.
Even without a deliberate attack, the threat of a mass pandemic is real, and organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World........