Genetically modified weapons

While modern-day terrorists may be constrained by the physics of aerosols, dispersion clouds and pulmonary alveolar dimensions, advances in molecular genetics and biotechnology have afforded them the possibility of manipulating the genetic composition of biologic organisms in order to enhance their threat potential. Theoretically, at least, such science could result in a Cold War-style "arms race" between bioterrorist states and biodefense organizations, since the molecular technology would serve dual purposes (Fraser, 2004).

The application of genomic science to bioterrorism may include the insertion of select genes for heightened infectivity, virulence, enhanced aerosol stability or antibiotic resistance into the agent's genome; it may also involve modification of the sequences recognized by detection devices or the host immune response (Petro et al., 2003). One example is the concept of a multi-drug resistant anthrax strain created by the insertion of plasmids carrying multiple antibiotic-resistant genes. There is evidence that the Soviets had some success in developing such variants (Alibek, 1999); the STI-1 strain was engineered with plasmid-based resistance to penicillin, rifampicine, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, macrolides, and lincomycin (Stepanov et al., 1996). This strain was purportedly developed as a live bacterial vaccine for prophylaxis and treatment purposes in a bioterrorism setting, thus illustrating a dramatic example of dual-use technology.

More ominous is the concept of genetic or genomic warfare, in which biological threat agents are tailored in the laboratory to attack populations of specific genetic backgrounds. The initial draft of the human genome has identified many essential genes that may be targets for future pharmaceuticals; conceivably, specific genomic segments may also be exploited as targets for custom-designed biological threat agents (Black, 2003). Potential weapons may include infectious agents, toxins, or small molecules targeted to subjects who display select genetic profiles. There is evidence that the Iraqi Government was working on weaponiz-ing the camelpox virus prior to 1990 specifically for use as a possible "ethnic weapon," as it is most toxic to populations reared in areas without camels and therefore immunologically inexperienced with this organism (Zilinskas, 1997).

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