FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, April 10, 2006

Biotech as the Ultimate Weapon

Until now, concern about bioweapons has largely focused around the relatively low-tech spread of an existing contagious disease such as anthrax. But now, some scientists are thinking the unthinkable: that DNA splicing and other biotechnologies could produce some of the most fearsome, diabolical weapons ever conceived.

The technology already exists to synthesize the smallpox virus -- technology that could be easily acquired by terrorists, crime syndicates and rogue nations. Combination viruses have reportedly been created in labs that, instead of causing immediate illness, attack the victim's immune system, causing neurological damage and death. Serguei Popov, a Russian biologist who conducted biowarfare research for the former Soviet Union, claims that deadly diseases as diverse as Ebola, polio and multiple sclerosis have been weaponized. The Soviets, he says, also tried to splice viruses that normally infect animals with a highly infectious human virus such as chickenpox to create a contagion resistant to existing treatments.

Even more bizarre, Popov claims that he was ordered to develop "psychotropic recombinant pathogens" -- viruses whose payloads affected the central nervous system, causing depression, amnesia or even schizophrenia. In the most extreme scenarios, bioweapons could be used to perform forms of mass mind control. Such agents were never fully developed, but Popov believes they are feasible.

What can be done to counter this threat? Proposals range from a radical overhaul of our national healthcare infrastructure to ensure rapid immunizations to tightening the controls over biotech components and equipment. But, as history has taught us, the problem will likely manifest itself long before any solutions become available.

Sources: MIT Technology Review, KurzweilAI.net