A New Age of Bioterror: Anticipating Exploitation of Tunable Viral Agents

Abstract: Advances in technology, particularly biotechnology, over the past decade have dramatically changed the world. Scientists are employing gene editing tools to cure genetic diseases, reduce the effects of climate change, and generate sustainable food sources. These same tools, however, can be used to modify pathogens to develop and deploy novel biological weapons. The nature of these tools and our understanding of specific viral genomes makes this process tunable. Components of a disease such as transmissibility, lethality, and the infectious window can potentially be modified for desired tactical, operational, or strategic effects. While this capability is currently beyond the skills and knowledge of the biology enthusiast, a trained individual would possess such skills and knowledge, though they may lack the necessary material and infrastructure support. Hence, it is necessary to develop and maintain capabilities that can respond to a variety of pathogens and possible effects.

The emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Wuhan, China, in November 2019 and its subsequent worldwide spread has had tremendously destabilizing effects, which are still being felt more than two years later. Lessons from COVID variants include immediate impacts at the local level (initial variant), global pandemic effects from the Delta variant to include significant and protracted economic impact, and the more sub-lethal, sustained economic, political, and healthcare impacts of the Omicron strain. The global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has also highlighted the ongoing biological revolution that has resulted in the rapid development and employment of new diagnostic tests, vaccines, and other targeted treatments including monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs.

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Source: The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point