Genetically engineered viruses may become the next generation of warfare

Thursday, November 1, 2018
By Paul Martin

Tomasz Pierscionek
1 Nov, 2018

Many technologies have dual use potential and can be applied to either civilian or defense projects, depending on the intent of those in charge.
German rocket technology led to the creation of V2 ballistic missiles in WW2 and later enabled the US to launch space exploration missions in the latter half of the 20th century. The technology also helped the US develop its own ballistic missile program.

Nowadays, US scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are working on a project called Insect Allies which will use insects to infect crops with genetically modified viruses that edit the crops’ genetic profile to make them more resilient against disease, as well as natural and manufactured threats to the food supply. It is not clear how the insects’ flight paths would be controlled to ensure they only infect designated targets.

DARPA is administered by the US Department of Defense and was founded after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957. The agency published a communiqué asserting that the program has no sinister intentions and seeks to “provide new capabilities to protect the United States, specifically the ability to respond rapidly to threats to the food supply”.

DARPA provided reassurances after German and French scientists voiced questions and concerns about the program’s efficacy earlier this month and suggested that it could be “widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention”.

If the know-how and means exist to transmit genetic viruses that supposedly create beneficial crop mutations, the opposite will also be possible – using insects to deliver gene editing viruses that destroy crops, ruin harvests and adversely affect the wider ecosystem.

Another project receiving DARPA funding involves releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys area to transmit a sterilizing genetic virus to their malaria carrying counterparts. Apart from the unknown effects upon the wider ecosystem, the knowledge gleaned from such research could one day make it possible for a state, a non-state actor, or a non-state actor working on behalf of a state to accidentally or deliberately use insect vectors to unleash a variety of biological agents and genetic viruses upon an unsuspecting population.

Gene editing technology has also made it possible for eradicated viruses to be brought back from the dead. Last year Canadian scientists managed to synthesize the horsepox virus, believed to be extinct and harmless to humans, at a cost of only $100,000 leading to fears that the same techniques can be employed to recreate other members of the poxvirus family, such as the extinct but deadly smallpox virus that killed 300 million people in the last century alone.

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