Synthetic biology creates concerns about proliferation of biological weapons

Al Mauroni in War on the Rocks about the advances in synthetic biology which can make it much easier to produce biological weapons:

Synthetic biology is a relatively recent technology whose future applications are being increasingly discussed within industry and academic circles. Like other technologies, it has potential dual-use (commercial and military) applications. As much as scientists and engineers are looking forward to creating new commercial processes and products with this capability, some experts are warning that synthetic biology could also lead to new military capabilities — specifically, new biological warfare agents and diseases that could be dangerous in the wrong hands. The John Hopkins Center for Health Security recently hosted a group exercise in which a bioengineered virus called “Clade X” was deliberately released by a violent extremist group, resulting in 150 million dead after 20 months. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute warns that synthetic biology could allow the development of “a super pathogen threatening the survival of large populations, and even civilization.”

There is something particularly creepy about biological weapons. The immediate impact of nuclear or chemical weapons means that you know that an attack has taken place.1 With biological weapons people just start dying for no obvious reason.

It seems possible that we’ll face serious non-proliferation issues for biological weapons as synthetic biology matures as a technology.

  1. Well, at least you’ll normally know that a nuclear or chemical attack takes place. Technically speaking the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko was a nuclear attack, and Sergey Skripal was poisoned with a chemical weapon. But in those cases the weapons weren’t used as weapons of mass destruction. 




Leave a Reply