The New Killer Pathogens

Countering the Coming Bioweapons Threat

Be prepared: first responders during an emergency exercise, Saint-Étienne, France, April 2016 ROBERT PRATTA / REUTERS

Military and political leaders have worried about large-scale biological warfare for more than a century. “Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, Plague to poison not armies only but whole districts—such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing,” Winston Churchill lamented in 1925. But despite the deadly potential of biological weapons, their actual use remains rare and (mostly) small scale. Over the last several decades, most states have given up their programs. Today, no country is openly pursuing biological weapons.

Recent breakthroughs in gene editing have generated massive excitement, but they have also reenergized fears about weaponized pathogens. Using gene-editing tools, including a system known as CRISPR, scientists are now able to modify an organism’s DNA more efficiently, flexibly, and accurately than ever before. The full range of potential applications is hard to predict, but CRISPR makes it much easier for scientists to produce changes in how organisms operate. 

These technologies offer vast potential for global good. Researchers are studying the use of new gene-editing techniques to fix deadly genetic mutations, create disease-resistant crops, and treat cancer. Top scientists at Harvard are pursuing medical applications once thought to be out of reach, such as age reversal and transplanting pig organs into humans. But it’s not hard to imagine how gene-editing technologies could be misused. Some fear that terrorists with even moderate capabilities could develop deadlier pathogens. And laboratories, appealing to parents’ instincts to offer advantages to their children, could modify embryos in ways that cross ethical boundaries. 

One of the most worrisome questions today is whether advances in biotechnology could tempt states to revive their old biological weapons programs or start new ones. Such an outcome would drastically undermine the progress of the last several decades. A revitalization of state biological weapons programs could trigger new conflicts or rekindle old arms races, destabilizing the international order.

Faced with extremes of promise and peril, policymakers must proceed with a sense of perspective. Fear-mongering or

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