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Biology As A Weapon

The Ebola epidemic, which broke out in West Africa in 2014, served as a stark and timely reminder of the health and security risks that biological pathogens pose to modern society. The outbreak saw unprecedented levels of cooperation between health organisations and the military to try and contain the spread of the virus. But in the background, concerns were being aired in some quarters, as to whether terrorists or non-state actors could use biological pathogens like Ebola to launch 
attacks designed to cause mass deaths and/or casualties.

A Freedom of Information request last year at the height of the Ebola epidemic saw the UK Ministry of Defence release to the mainstream media a heavily redacted report from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) outlining potential scenarios in which Ebola may possibly be used in bioterrorist attacks. The different scenarios, most of which were blacked out, were assigned varying degrees of technical and logistical complexity. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior research fellow at the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine, King’s College London, says Ebola does not, for the moment, make a viable bioweapon candidate.

The political and security community’s focus on the threat of bioterrorism has been distracting, says Lentzos, who has authored various articles on biological weapons and the biosecurity implications of scientific advances in synthesising pathogens. She is author of the forthcoming book: Synthetic Biology & Bioweapons. Although the risk of bioterrorism remains real—recent examples include letters laced with anthrax spores sent to media organisations and Congressional offices in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001; the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, which released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system in the mid-1990s was said to have attempted three unsuccessful biological attacks in Japan using botulinum toxin and anthrax—Lentzos says terrorists are more likely to launch a crude bioterrorist attack, which would not result in mass casualties. “State actors, on the other hand,” she says, “are more likely to be able to develop more sophisticated biological weapons.”

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