In my previous life as a freelance writer, back in the 80's and early 90's, I did a lot of magazine articles on chemical weapons, particularly about the "binary nerve gas" controversy during the Reagan Administration, and the proliferation of chemical weapons in the 1980's to countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Thailand, and others. I had a couple sources in the Pentagon and in disarmament groups like SIPRI. I started work on a book manuscript on the subject, but in 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed, interest in chemical weapons plummeted, and I never finished it. I stored it on a floppy disk and left it in a drawer.
Well, this week, given the renewed interest in chemical weapons, I decided to look for it, and found it. So I spent the day today reading through it, doing some research to update the parts that need updating, and preparing it to be published.
So what I am going to do is post the entire rough draft manuscript here, in a series of diaries. I hope it will provide some useful background info on CBW that people can keep in mind when reading about the situation in Syria. And I'd also like to recruit some editors--I'd appreciate any feedback from folks, especially about parts that might not be clear or are hard to understand. It's just a rough draft, so none of it is chiseled in stone.
Previous parts of manuscript here:
One: The History of CBW
Two: The Debate Over Binary Chemical Weapons
(c) 2013 by Lenny Flank. All rights reserved.
Genetic Engineering and CBW
At the same time that the chemical weapons program was growing to include the binary weapons, the biological defense program was also growing rapidly as the result of a new technological breakthrough—genetic engineering.
By 1969, the various problems associated with the use of live biological pathogens as weapons had convinced most US officials that the use of biological weapons was too unpredictable and troublesome. As a result, President Nixon ordered the program to end, and unilaterally renounced the use of germ warfare.
By this time, however, research at Ft. Detrick had already turned the BW program in a new direction, as attention began to focus on the bio-toxins rather than the live pathogens. These toxins, the Pentagon hoped, would be more predictable and controllable than the microbes which produced them. Just as the bio-toxin program was getting off the ground, however, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention was signed. The American BW program was again allowed to die out.
In the late 1970’s, however, the program was back with renewed vigor as the Defense Department showed a sudden new interest in the bio-toxins. By 1978, the Pentagon listed research programs centering around “botulin neurotoxins, anthrax toxins, several staphylococcal enterotoxins, enterotoxins produced by the cholera and shigella species, diphtheria exotoxin and pseudomonas exotoxin A and exoenzyme S.” The cause of this flurry of activity was the development of a new technology that opened vast new possibilities for biological warfare. This new technology was genetic engineering, or “gene splicing”.
The Pentagon was, in fact, in on DNA research almost from the ground floor. In 1962, Major General Marshall Stubbs, who was in charge of all US CBW preparations, told Congress that the Defense Department was already carrying out genetic experiments. The DOD was interested in gene-splicing, Stubbs remarked, because research “has indicated ways in which these ingredients may suit man’s desires.” Several studies during the 1960’s were investigating the possibility of using genetic technology to develop new strains of biological agents. The DOD’s genetic research projects dropped off after the 1969 moratorium and the 1972 treaty.
As genetic engineering techniques began to grow more sophisticated in the late 70’s, however, the Defense Department expanded its genetic research. In 1978, two new P-4 laboratories were opened at Bethesda, Maryland, and at Ft. Detrick. (The “P-4” refers to the guidelines set by the National Institute of Health for work with potentially dangerous organisms, from level P-1 to level P-4. P-4 labs provide the highest security, and are intended for work with the most dangerous microbes. They are provided with airlocks, full protective suits and regular decontamination procedures.) Several research programs involving genetic engineering were carried out at the Detrick P-4 lab throughout the 1980’s. Most of these efforts were geared towards developing vaccines for potential BW agents. Another sizeable program experimented with the human gene that controls the production of the enzyme cholinesterase, in hopes of developing a treatment for nerve gas poisoning. The Defense Department repeatedly denied that it was using gene-splicing techniques to develop new BW agents or to modify existing ones.
Genetic researchers, however, were not blind to the potential wartime uses of such technology.
In the early stages of biological warfare research, investigators had to be content with selectively breeding any desirable characteristics which appeared through natural or induced mutations. If researchers wanted a pathogen that had a higher or lower level of virulence than normal, for instance, they had no choice but to wait until such a strain appeared naturally and then to selectively breed that strain. This process was time-consuming and not always successful.
Using DNA techniques, however, desired characteristic can potentially be produced, quickly and cheaply, by programming it into the pathogen’s genetic code. As Defense Intelligence Agency expert John Birkner pointed out, “Normally harmless, non-disease-producing organisms could be modified to become highly toxic and produce effects for which an opponent has no known treatment. Other agents, now considered to be too unstable for storage or biological warfare applications, could be changed sufficiently to become effective.” Recognizing the possibilities which were presented by these techniques, the Pentagon began a crash program to apply DNA technology to their biological defense research.
Among the new possibilities which came under investigation was a concept called “microencapsulation”. Using this genetic technique, researchers can use an organic chemical coat to surround and protect delicate organisms, allowing potential BW agents to better survive the rigors of dissemination. Pathogens previously rejected as being too fragile for BW use could, using this technology, still find a place in an attacker’s biological arsenal.
Another possibility which has been the target of research takes advantage of the body’s natural immune system to defeat vaccinations. When disease-producing organisms enter the body, the immune system responds by attacking the pathogen’s protective protein coat until it produces the correct antibody that breaks down the cell wall of the pathogen and destroys it. All vaccines, whether they are based on dead pathogens or on weakened strains of live ones, provide immunity because they allow the body’s immune system to match the proper antibody to the particular invader. Thus, when the “real” pathogens enter the body, the immune system is able to attack immediately because it already has the proper antibody. The pathogens are destroyed before they can do any damage.
A potential biological aggressor, however, would have little trouble in using genetic engineering technology to slightly alter the protein coat of the pathogen, making the organisms unrecognizable to the body’s immune system. Such a tactic would, in effect, nullify the immunity brought about by any previous vaccinations, since the new altered organism is not the same as the one used in the vaccination. An army using altered pathogens could, if properly vaccinated against the new variant, unleash disease on the opponent’s population even if they had already been vaccinated against the ordinary strains of that disease.
Research also pointed to the possibility of manufacturing genetically-engineered pathogens that were programmed to attack only specific groups of people. Several diseases already show a marked affinity for certain racial or ethnic genotypes. San Joaquin Valley Fever, or coccidiomycosis, for instance, is up to ten times more lethal to Africans than to Europeans. Genetic engineering seemed to present the possibility of altering these or other organisms to become virulent only in the presence of a specific genetic marker. This “ethnic killer” could presumably then be pre-programmed to attack some targeted ethnic group while remaining harmless to everyone else. While a perfectly discriminatory “ethnic killer” may indeed be impossible, the concept was the object of considerable research.
Genetic technology offered another possibility for a potential BW attacker. “A more feasible use of DNA than the creation of a new pathogen,” a report from Dugway Proving Grounds points out, “is the manufacture of toxins. This is because toxins could probably be manufactured by newly created bacterial strains under controlled laboratory conditions.”
Using genetic techniques, it is possible for researchers to induce a normally harmless microbe to manufacture the chemical enzymes which are needed for a lethal protein toxin, allowing laboratory workers to chemically assemble the bio-components into the final toxin. In a variation of this procedure, harmless organisms can have foreign DNA added to them which produces the lethal toxin itself. Some American officials in the 1980’s, for instance, concluded that Soviet researchers were investigating the possibility of using "recombinant DNA" to induce harmless bacteria to manufacture biological toxins or venom once they were inside the body.
Using these processes (which were already being used commercially to produce human insulin, human interferon and other medicinal substances), a potential biological aggressor could quickly and clandestinely manufacture large amounts of potent bio-toxins.
Another concept which came under scrutiny is the so-called “bio-chemical weapon”. The idea here is to use genetically-manufactured natural body chemicals, such as hormones, enzymes, and endorphins, to alter an enemy’s body functions and thus to incapacitate or kill him. As a 1985 Pentagon report pointed out, “It is possible to artificially produce the natural biological substances which exert potent regulatory effects on the body. These substances are normally present in the body and control mental states, mood and emotion, perception, organ function, growth and repair, temperature, and other body processes. These substances are not to be considered toxic and are indispensable to the normal functioning of the human body. But even slight imbalances can cause profound physiological effects, leading to incapacitation and even death.”
All of these potential weapons have already been outlawed by the Biological Weapons Convention, but while the BWC outlaws the development of biological weapons, it allows signatories to carry out "defensive research", with the goal of developing detectors, anti-contamination measures, vaccines, etc. against potential new BW agents. In practice, however, there is little difference between an offensive BW program and a defensive one. In order to develop an effective defense against a potential weapon, the defender must know how that weapon works. He must be familiar with its strong points as well as its weaknesses, and also its possible variations. Thus, in order to perfect a defense against an enemy’s potential biological weapon, the defender must first develop the ability to construct and use such a weapon himself.
The result is a large grey area between legal “defensive” work and prohibited “offensive” research. Most nations, including the US, have taken the interpretation that the Biological Weapons treaty allows any and all research except the actual mass production of deliverable weapons. Up to that point, anything goes, and nations remain free to conduct genetic research into the defensive aspects of BW, which gives them at the same time an offensive BW potential.
Much military genetic research seemed to revolve around the goal of producing weakened strains of potential BW agents for the production of protective vaccines. Defense Department reports have mentioned such experiments on “selected clones of the Dengue-1 virus” and the “Junin virus, XJ clone 3”. In the 1980’s, the Pentagon began experimenting on the manipulation of diphtheria toxin.
In addition to the obvious defensive purposes of vaccine research, however, it must be remembered that the development of reliable vaccination and immunization techniques is a crucial prerequisite for the offensive use of these agents. As researcher Arthur Westing has pointed out, “The essentially infinite number of potential biological agents seems to make it futile to develop or stockpile vaccines for defensive purposes. One therefore wonders whether an active program of research on vaccines is not associated with preparing for the offensive use of biological agents.” Also, the same genetic techniques which produce weakened versions of BW agents for vaccines can also produce virulent strains for use in weapons.
It is quite clear that, despite the 1972 treaty outlawing the production of biological weapons, military research into genetically engineered bio-weapons has continued, in the form of "defensive research".
Unlike the sciences of physics and chemistry, the science of biology has yet to unleash its dark side on humanity. We can only hope that remains true.