Biotechnology: Impact on Biological Warfare and Biodefense

James B. Petro, Theodore R. Plasse, Jack A. Mcnulty


Biosecur Bioterror. 2003;1(3) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Advances in biological research likely will permit development of a new class of advanced biological warfare (ABW) agents engineered to elicit novel effects. In addition, biotechnology will have applications supporting ABW weaponization, dissemination, and delivery. Such new agents and delivery systems would provide a variety of new use options, expanding the BW paradigm. Although ABW agents will not replace threats posed by traditional biological agents such as Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Variola (smallpox), they will necessitate novel approaches to counterproliferation, detection, medical countermeasures, and attribution.

The concept of employing disease as a weapon has existed for centuries. The low cost, minimal barriers to acquisition, and potential impact of biological agents as weapons have influenced a number of countries to pursue biological warfare (BW) throughout the 20th century.[1] International agreements, such as the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC), have arguably done little to deter foreign BW programs; ironically, information regarding the former Soviet Union suggests that such programs reached new heights of sophistication following ratification of the agreement.[2] This is in part because of the ease with which BW programs can be concealed within legitimate research. Thus, it is logical to expect that states that seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction will continue to pursue biological warfare.

The threat that BW proliferation poses to civilian and military populations is compounded by the possibility that terrorist organizations may either acquire these weapons, indirectly or serendipitously, from national programs or develop their own intrinsic BW capability. This bioterror threat represents a significant challenge to organizations and agencies responsible for directing biodefense efforts. To date, most discussions regarding the creation of a national biodefense strategy have focused largely on addressing existing threats posed by a select group of naturally occurring pathogens and toxins. Although agents traditionally associated with biological warfare likely will remain the predominant threat over the next 10 years, implications of current and emerging biotechnologies on development of novel BW agents should also be considered and factored into any long-term biodefense strategy.

This article is intended to highlight the impending potential for biotechnology to revolutionize concepts underlying development, weaponization, and limitations of biological agents for BW. It is now possible to build on previous reports devoted to communicating biological threats posed by molecular biology[3,4,5,6] by identifying key technologies that could support efforts to engineer novel biological warfare agents. However, the problem of outlining specific technologies of high "dual-use" application in a public forum without assisting individuals with malicious intent precludes extensive technical discussions here. Rather, we will focus on how biotechnology, when applied to biological warfare, holds promise to challenge biodefense efforts targeted to counter threats presented by traditional agents, including counterproliferation, detection, and development of medical countermeasures. Ultimately, in order to be well situated to meet future challenges, some resources in all areas of biodefense need to be diverted toward development of next-generation approaches sufficient to counter emerging threats.


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