The nation currently faces an age of bioengineered viral pandemics and collapse. Advances in biotechnology enable nations, terrorist groups, or even lone wolves to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as a human-to-human transmissible version of avian flu or to modify a lethal virus to facilitate a longer period of contagion and undetected spread before symptoms manifest. Bioengineering enables almost anyone to modify and release a new virus that, in addition to a pandemic, could cause an ensuing collapse in economic activity as well as loss of law and order as people react to the threat. Some experts say that the threat of a natural or bioengineered viral pandemic is already here. As it becomes increasingly easier to modify existing pathogens, the threat will also rise as these pathogens are made to be more lethal and more transmissible.
In 2012, scientists from the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, Baltimore, warned that H5N1 avian influenza kills about 60% of its victims, compared to just 2% (or 50 million people) for the 1918 Great Spanish Flu Pandemic. With some cases of unsustained human-to-human spread of H5N1, scientists are concerned that the virus will eventually mutate to a form that is easily spread from person to person:
Like all influenza strains, H5N1 is constantly evolving in nature. But thankfully, this deadly virus does not now spread readily through the air from person to person. If it evolves to become as transmissible as normal flu and results in a pandemic, it could cause billions of illnesses and deaths around the world.
Dual-Use Research, Increasing the Threat
History shows that there is an increasing ability to modify viruses and access laboratories to create new and more lethal pathogens. In some cases, research begins with good intentions but, in the hands of someone with nefarious intentions, could be extremely dangerous. Laboratory accidents, do-it-yourself biologists, and individuals conducting virus experiments at their homes or in small rent-a-lab spaces introduce many intentional or unintentional safety and security concerns. In addition to the following examples, other legitimate lab incidents have likely occurred without being publicized:
- In 2001, Australian researchers attempting to make a contraceptive vaccine for pest control inserted a “good” gene into mousepox virus and accidentally created a lethal new virus that resisted vaccination.
- In 2002, a team of researchers at SUNY Stony Brook created a live polio virus as part of a Department of Defense (DOD) project to prove the threat of synthetic bioweapons. The head of the team, Eckard Wimmer said that, “You no longer need the real thing in order to make the virus and propagate it.”
- In 2011, a team of researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands attempted to turn H5N1 virus into a human-to-human flu. The goal was to repeatedly infect ferrets until a new form of H5N1 emerged that could spread through the air from one mammal to another. Although human-to-human transmission was not reached during that study, the lesson learned from this research is that high-tech bioengineering is not required to alter current pathogens. In this case, researchers used a simple process of swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using those samples to infect other ferrets.
- In 2011, international media reported that scientists had created a virus with 60% lethality. The U.S. government expressed concern about the risk of terrorists exploiting this information if the results were published.
- In 2013, at China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, scientists combined H5N1 with genetic attributes found in dozens of other flu strains. The results included “man-made super flu strains” with lethal airborne transmission between guinea pigs. Scientists around the world condemned such experiments as “appalling irresponsibility.” Those scientists recognized the threat this experimentation poses should a new viral strain (mixed with human influenza) escape.
- In recent years, scientists continue to make advances in their ability to manipulate DNA and create new GMOs. New technology emerges monthly, with universities and research labs selling the old, but still very capable machinery – enabling terrorists or do-it-yourself amateurs to obtain advanced, inexpensive bioengineering tools.
A lone terrorist releasing the virus would likely be detected and thwarted to limit the devastation. However, a nation state would be more capable of launching a bioattack that not only has high lethality and transmissibility but also: (1) a longer dormant period; or (2) carriers who do not exhibit the illness or symptoms. This scenario could infect and kill millions, leaving survivors with social and economic instability as well as radically disrupted security for months or possibly years.
Incentivization for a Bioattack
If a country like North Korea were to launch a successful nuclear attack on another country, the worldwide response would be swift and devastating for that nation. Alternatively, North Korea could secretly release a deadly virus in the United States or elsewhere that could kill hundreds of millions. Even with strong speculation of responsibility, the origin of such an attack would be difficult to prove.
The effects of a weaponized virus versus a nuclear weapon are much greater: more lethal, less expensive, and easier to create and launch. In addition to the massive number of fatalities that an avian flu modified for human-to-human transmission could cause, the secondary and tertiary effects also need to be considered. Economic and social chaos coupled with a breakdown in law and order would contribute to the fatalities, perhaps even more so.
When scientists created a virus with 60% lethality, the government warned that publishing the data could increase the risk of terrorists exploiting it.
In the case of North Korea, another benefit of such an attack is that the country is relatively isolated from the rest of the world. As the virus spreads from country to country, North Korea’s limited international travel compared to countries like the United States could protect residents from the threat. North Korea would be ideally situated to not just survive, but actually benefit from a global pandemic. As South Korea and the United States experience widespread devastation, North Korea would be little affected by a pandemic.
Similarly, Iranian Revolutionary Guards could decide that preparing and spreading a human transmissible form of avian flu in Israel and the United States would be more beneficial than investing in a small nuclear attack, which would have a low probability of success but high probability of devastating retaliation against Iran. Releasing a slow-acting virus in busy airports would ensure that the contagion could spread for a few days before those infected would show symptoms. By the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detects and issues a warning, it would be too late for the millions of Americans who would already be infected in cities and states across the country. At that point, as the spread continues, quarantine would not be possible. In this scenario, Iran would likely be affected as the pandemic spreads. However, they would have time to quarantine and may have developed a vaccine before the initial release. Again, determining where the virus originated would be difficult to prove.
Scientists have warned for years that weaponized biotechnology and genetically modified organisms pose an “existential threat” to humans. A May 2011 National Defense University study concluded that “there are tangible opportunities for many potential adversaries to acquire, modify, and then manufacture to scale a potential GMO pathogen.” Despite warnings from scientists and experts of the “existential threat” that biotechnology and GMOs pose, the warnings have yet to be fully heeded. The controversial issues raised by this threat create political and bureaucratic barriers to governmental action.
Many known and yet unknown terrorist groups and bad actors around the world could be working on manual or high-tech bioengineering ways to develop deadly new viruses. The threat could originate from a broad range of actors – from one dedicated, deranged individual (a “biological Unabomber”) to a highly moral biologist. For example, a kindly scientist who believes that overpopulation is destroying the planet and future generations could develop and release a bioengineered viral pandemic to reset the human population to a sustainable level. In 1998, biologist Lynn Margulis warned:
We need to be freed from our species-specific arrogance. No evidence exists that we are “chosen,” the unique species for which all the others were made. Nor are we the most important one because we are so numerous, powerful and dangerous. Our tenacious illusion of special dispensation belies our true status as upright, mammalian weeds.
Although biotechnology promises great new treatments and advances in medicine, it also could be used to design new and more deadly viruses. It appears to be too late to stop the spread of this technology and its inevitable misuse. With or without advanced biotechnology, the potential of causing a global pandemic capable of killing millions of people could incentivize terrorists and nation states to tamper with pathogens to make them highly transmissible within the human population. There is no way to forecast the odds of a bioengineered viral pandemic, but many experts believe it is inevitable and could happen very soon.
This article is Part 2 of a six-part series on closing disaster recovery gaps and preparing for triggering events that could cascade into long-term societal disruptions:
Triggered Collapse, Part 2: Viral Pandemics
Drew Miller, Ph.D., a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, business executive, management consultant. He was an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, receiving an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy. He has published articles on the bioengineered pandemic threat and presented at national conferences on disaster preparedness. He served as a part-time elected official, county commissioner, and University of Nebraska Regent for 16 years, and continues to serve in the Civil Air Patrol.