Return to Homepage

Search IPCB:            

ULTRA Search™
for more
specific results

Genetic Research and Biowarfare: What's the Connection?

By Brett Lee Shelton, J.D., and Stuart Newman, Ph.D.

[Explanatory Note: IPCB staff and Board members frequently receive questions concerning the prospects of biowarfare based on genetic research on indigenous communities. This briefing is an attempt to explain the prospects of such an occurrence by explaining how current research fits into such a possibility.]

Concern about biological warfare is not just a paranoid delusion in native communities across America. Reports of smallpox-infested blankets being distributed during the “Indian wars” period of United States history, and more recent experience of forced sterilization are well-known in many native communities. It's not such a stretch to think that genetic research focusing on native people could lead to a new form of biowarfare. And it's not merely paranoia leading people to believe that a government that allowed, and even sponsored, biological experimentation such as the Tuskeegee experiments in which African American men were purposely left untreated for syphilis, would also sponsor similarly unethical research. But just how could genetic research contribute to biowarfare?

Genetically-based biowarfare would be different from the forms of biowarfare we already know about. Current models of biowarfare involve introducing a biohazard into a targeted population, and then letting nature take its course as the biohazard infects the target population (and anyone else who happens to be infected). The specific biohazard involved could be any of a number of infectious agents-- diseases such as anthrax are common examples. Generally, this form of warfare is “messy” in that it is difficult to limit exposure to only members of the target population. Anyone exposed may be infected, rather than just those who were targeted. Generally, this type of warfare would be ineffective except in cases of terrorism or when the entire population of a certain location is targeted.

If one could more accurately target the victims, however, biowarfare might be more effective.¼ Genetic differences in people could provide the basis for precision targeting in biowarfare. Certain steps would be required for such genetically-targeted biowarfare to be a reality.

What Would it Take for Genetic Biowarfare to be Developed?

First, an understanding of the “typical” human genome would be required. This would be necessary in order to ensure the “benefit” of basing biowarfare on genetics, namely that only certain people would be affected, and not others. In order to achieve such precision targeting, you need to understand the genetics of the people you want to avoid targeting.

Second, an understanding of genetic differences would be required. One would have to learn about differences between the targeted population and other populations around them, so that one could eventually take advantage of these differences in targeting the agent of infection. A well-designed, genetically-based instrument of biowarfare would only attack or affect people with a specific genetic trait, and not others. The genetic differences between the targeted people and the surrounding population would have to be understood before such targeting could be achieved.

Finally, once the genes of the general population, and differences between the targeted population and the surrounding population, are understood, it would be necessary to develop instruments of warfare, such as strains of infectious agents like viruses and infections, that would only attack or affect the targeted people. If a virus were to be the instrument of biowarfare, it would have to be able to distinguish between the genes of the targeted people and those around them. Specifically, it would have to only have a harmful effect on the targeted people.

If each of these three conditions were met, it would be possible to develop instruments of biowarfare that discriminately harm only people with a particular genetic trait. Biowarfare based on genetics would be a real possibility. But could this ever happen?

Is Any of the Necessary Research Being Conducted?

The first necessary step for genetic biowarfare, understanding the “typical” human genetic makeup, is well underway. In June, 2000, the U.S. government and a corporation, Celera Genomics, jointly announced that they had virtually completed a map of the “typical” human genome.

The second step, understanding differences in populations that could be targeted, is also underway. Once it was clear that the first map of the human genome would eventually be made, research into the differences in genetic information between populations was undertaken. Since the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, increasing attention has been focused on describing genetic differences between populations. While indigenous populations are highly sought after for genetic diversity research because of supposed within-group uniformity, no study conducted to date can distinguish a particular people from all others based solely upon their genetic differences.

The third step is further off, as far as we know.¼ Research on what defines a bacteria or virus as pathogenic has not reached firm conclusions even for known disease-causing microbes. For example, what caused the 1918 strain of influenza to become such a world-wide killer is still a matter of controversy, and the means by which HIV undermines the immune system is still poorly understood despite more than a decade of intensive study. On the other hand, recent research on mouse viruses in Australia has shown that the creation of “super-germs” is not as difficult as previously thought. While it is possible that the technology currently being used in genetic research could eventually contribute to the development of ethnically-targeted biowarfare agents, scientists seem far from being able to control the properties of microbes with such precision at the present time.

Should I Worry?

The fact that research that would support the development of genetic biowarfare is already substantially underway can be rather unsettling.¼ Further, the scope of funding for such research and its supporters (including the Departments of Energy and Defense) do not help ease the mind.

There is already extensive research being conducted on the genetic basis of disease and resistance in humans and other species, such as crops. There is a long history of such research.. For a good discussion of some of the relevant issues, see Pat Roy Mooney, “The ETC Century: Erosion, Transformation, and Corporate Concentration in the 21st Century,” in Development Dialogue 1999:1-2, at pages 30-43 (available online at

The main reassuring aspect of all research that has been done to date is that all human groups have the same set of genes, and there are no genetic variants that are exclusively found in one people or ethnic group. Even if a genetic variant is highly concentrated in a given group there is a certain probability that someone who is not part of that group, or not aware of common ancestry with that group, will also have the variant. This means that any army that wishes to use a biowarfare agent that is targeted to a particular ethnic group will have to carefully screen its own troops to make sure that none of them are susceptible. Such screening is not impossible, but it would be unpractical for an army drawn from an ethnically diverse population. Alternatively, vaccination against such agents might be possible, but would never be completely reliable. If such screening or vaccination were undertaken in the United States, it would have to be done under the strictest secrecy.

Given the relationship of poor nutrition and sanitation to illness and death from infectious disease, it must also be recognized that the maintenance of poverty by the policies of corporations and the governments of rich nations constitutes a form of biological warfare. In such cases no new agents need be designed; existing ones such as AIDS, typhoid, and malaria are entirely sufficient.

The best defense against the development of novel genetically-targeted biowarfare agents are demands that international protocols banning such research be agreed to by the United States and enforced, and that no secret research on pathogens and vaccines be permitted to take place here or abroad.

Back to Briefing Papers Index