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  • Writer's pictureSBE VIT

The Pandora's Box of Bioweapon

Updated: May 13, 2023

By - Niranjan

Ah, the COVID pandemic - a time of unprecedented confusion and chaos for us mere mortals. And as if the virus wasn't enough, we also had to deal with a myriad of conspiracy theories flying around in the very air we were so afraid to breathe. One such conspiracy theory that you might have heard is that the virus that caused a global pandemic and claimed millions of lives was not a natural occurrence but a bioweapon designed and unleashed by this small, unheard country called China. But before we even debate about whether this might have been an actual possibility or not, what even is a bioweapon? A bioweapon, short for a biological weapon, uses pathogens (such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins) to harm or kill people, animals, or plants intentionally. These are agents in Bioterrorism, which refers to the intentional use of biological agents, such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins, to cause harm to people, animals, or plants. This article will delve into the dangerous world of bioweapons, bioterrorism agents, and the catastrophic injury they can cause.

Biological weapons are a grave threat to public health and global security, as they have the potential to cause widespread death and devastation. These weapons can take the form of deadly microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, fungi, or toxic substances produced by some of the most lethal living organisms on the planet. Anthrax, Botulinum toxin, and the plague are a few examples of biological agents that can quickly become a public health nightmare, causing numerous fatalities in a concise amount of time. Not only that, but some of these agents can also spread from person to person, leading to full-blown epidemics that are difficult to control.

The worst part? These attacks can be made to look like a natural event, making it challenging for public health officials to determine if the outbreak results from a terrorist attack or if Mother Nature was just doing her thing, or even...bats (cough, COVID cough). Biological weapons are a subset of a larger class of weapons referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including chemical, nuclear, and radiological weapons.

Bioterrorism and bioweapons are considered more hazardous than other forms of terrorism. These agents have high transmission rates meaning they are easily transmitted from person to person, resulting in the rapid spread and a much more significant impact compared to other forms of terrorism. They can also be challenging to detect and control, as they are often invisible and can spread without the knowledge of those infected. Additionally, many biological agents have long incubation periods; therefore, infected individuals may not show symptoms for days or weeks after exposure making it challenging to identify and contain an outbreak. Moreover, they can cause high morbidity and mortality rates, resulting in widespread panic and disruption to critical infrastructure and services. Lastly, developing effective treatments and vaccines can be a long and complex process, exacerbating the impact of a bioterrorism attack and making it much more challenging to manage and control.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) separates potential bioterrorism agents that cause human infections into three categories, designated as A, B, and C. Category A biological agents are considered the most dangerous and pose a significant threat to public health. These agents have a high Basic Reproduction Rate (R0) and can result in increased mortality rates and widespread public panic. The Basic Reproduction Number (R0) is a mathematical term that describes the rate of transmission of a disease or biological agent in a population. A high Basic Reproduction Number (R0) represents a higher rate of transmission of a disease or biological agent in a population. Examples of Category A biological agents include anthrax, smallpox, botulinum toxin and plague. Anthrax is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis and can be contracted through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with skin wounds. The variola virus causes smallpox and is highly contagious, spreading from person to person through respiratory droplets. Botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is one of the most lethal toxins known to humans and can cause paralysis and respiratory failure.

Category B biological agents are moderately easy to disseminate and can result in moderate morbidity and low mortality rates. Examples of Category B agents include Brucella species, Q fever, and ricin toxin. Brucella is a bacterium that can cause flu-like symptoms and is commonly found in domesticated animals. Q fever is caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii and can be transmitted through inhalation or ingestion of contaminated food or water. Ricin toxin is derived from the castor bean plant and can be produced in large quantities.

Category C biological agents are emerging pathogens that can be engineered for mass dissemination because they have the potential for high morbidity and mortality rates. Examples of Category C agents include Hantavirus and Nipah virus. Hantavirus is a respiratory illness transmitted through the urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents. Nipah virus is a highly contagious virus transmitted from animals to humans, causing encephalitis and respiratory illness.

Now we’re going to be diving into the exciting world of Biotechnology. We all know that Biotechnology is a rapidly advancing field that has the potential to change the world. We’re talking about creating new organisms, modifying DNA, and even hacking into the very building blocks of life. But on the other hand, we’ve also got the potential for bioterrorism, environmental disasters, and unintended consequences that could make for a modern Hollywood sci-fi movie.

One of the biggest concerns is the threat of Bioterrorism. So what are these concerns, you ask? First, the emergence of synthetic biology, which is the engineering of biological systems to create new organisms, functions or products. Synthetic biology has the potential to create new viruses, bacteria, or toxins that could be used as biological weapons. This technology is becoming more accessible, and it may be difficult to regulate its use. Secondly, we have gene editing. Gene editing technologies have made it easier and cheaper to modify the DNA of living organisms. One such gene editing technology is CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful genetic tool that allows scientists to make precise edits to DNA. Think of it as molecular scissors that can cut and replace specific sections of genetic code. With this technology, bioterrorists could potentially engineer bacteria or viruses resistant to antibiotics, highly contagious, or even entirely new to the human immune system. They could also use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify pathogens so that they only affect specific populations or individuals, making them even more deadly and difficult to contain. Third is DIY Biohacking. DIY biohacking refers to individuals or groups experimenting with biotechnology in non-traditional settings. While this movement has the potential to accelerate scientific progress, it also raises concerns about the safety and security of these experiments. Unregulated biohacking could lead to the accidental release of dangerous pathogens or the deliberate creation of biological weapons. All of these advancements could potentially lead to the creation of dangerous biological weapons.

Returning to conspiracy ideas, they have grown in number just like the virus itself. Are the solutions any closer now? It is improbable that COVID-19 was created as a bioweapon. There is just no data to back up this notion; the risks seem too enormous, and the costs seem too high. However, many people think COVID-19 was created by humans, even if it wasn't a bioengineered weapon and a modified virus sample was leaked from a lab. However, there is yet no concrete evidence. While the pandemic might not be a direct act of bioterrorism, it still poses an open question - Was China culturing the virus to use it another day?

While we used to worry about guns and tanks, the deadliest weapon may now be a tiny virus. With terrorism still a global issue, the potential for bioterrorism is a genuine concern. We must be aware of the potential dangers of bioterrorism and take the necessary steps to prevent it.

As we've seen, the threat of bioterrorism is real, and it's a concern that we must take seriously. While we can't predict or prevent all possible attacks, there are steps we can take to minimise the risks. Investing in research to develop new vaccines, improving our public health infrastructure, and enforcing global collaboration on biodefense are all crucial. Additionally, we must remain vigilant and aware. But let's not forget the power of hope. Hope was trapped inside Pandora’s box after all the other evils were released.

As we face this challenge together, we can work towards a future where bioterrorism is a thing of the past. We have the potential to create a world where people don't have to live in fear of biological threats and where we can enjoy the benefits of modern medicine without worrying about the possibility of another pandemic. It won't be easy, but with determination and a shared commitment to safety, we can make it happen. So let's be proactive, let's be cautious, and let's be optimistic.

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