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
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 www.etcgroup.org).
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
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
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