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RachelBrady's picture

Biological Warfare


In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. Following this was The Biological Weapons Convention, opened for signature on April 10, 1972, the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons. Biowarfare is defined as the use of biological and chemical agents, and their by-products, in order to harm humans and other living organisms. By nature bioweapons are not easily detectable and require small quantities to produce devastating damage. With the antrax scare following 9-11, the media has been flooded with stories on bioweapons and biodefense. The fear of an unseen 'evil' is justifiably terrifying, but why stop at banning the production of bioweapons? The vast biodefense systems around the world imply, a priori, the ability to harness those weapons one intends to protect against. Furthermore, why specifically ban biological warfare as opposed to other forms of destruction?

Video Intro

Biological Warfare and the Implications of Biotechnology

Postal Anthrax Aftermath: Has Biodefense Spending Made Us Safer?

Future Developments in Biowarfare


jrieders's picture

7th generation

After watching entire posted video I was completely shocked that the US government tested their dispersal ability on the US using benign bacteria (that was my understanding). They had to be very confident that they would not harm anyone. I suppose that there are bacteria out there that mutate at a very slow rate so the chance of them becoming harmful is very low, but I would never feel confident enough in our understanding of these organisms to trust this assumption.

 In the antibiotics discussion and health care discussion we had a common theme, generally that if things progress as they are things can only get worse, and that if we try to change things we can only suppose things will be different but cannot make guarantees. Both involved potential for things to get worse before they get better. This requires us to employ the Native American philosophy that we should always think how our actions will affect humankind 7 generations from now. I think we could obviously apply this to almost anything, but it is particularly helpful in thinking about bioweapons, where we would most likely pick robust bacteria that would withstand the dispersal process and thrive for as long as possible, even with low mutation rates, many years from now we might have a deadly pandemic to deal with.

jrlewis's picture

true story...

Thinking about the ethics of biological warfare research reminded me of a conspiracy theory story that my mother repeats yearly.  When we drive north on I-95, we pass an exit for Lyme Connecticut and she tells me about how the US government created Lyme Disease.  Old Lyme Connecticut is located close to Plum Island and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC).  The PIADC is a USDA center that conducted research on biological warfare.  Over several decades, the center studied foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, and vesicular stomatitis virus.  Foot-and-mouth disease is extremely contagious infection, outbreaks cause significant economic and livestock losses.  Therefore, according to congressional law it can only be studied at offshore research facilities.  However, much more sinister deeds have been attributed to the PIADC.  The Plum Island has been linked with anthrax and Lyme Disease in popular culture.  “The Poison Plum” and “Lab 257” are both books, which allege a connection between the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) and the outbreak of Lyme Disease. 

It is the cult status of Plum Island and by implication biological warfare.  The popular fear is that there are risks to even engaging in a research program.  People argue that there is the potential for terrible unintended consequences.  Horror stories that sound like plots in science fiction emerge.  Interwoven in these tales is a strong distrust of the government and military. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

is war a good metaphor for scientific practice, for science?

What struck me about this conversation was parallels to earlier conversations about, on the one hand, antibiotics and antibiotic resistance and, on the other, the possible need for a scientific code of conduct.
With regard to the first, there is the issue of whether we need to approach all phenomena, human or otherwise, with a presumption of defence and attack, with a friends/enemies mentality.  Susan Sontag, in her essay "Illness as Metaphor" eloquently calls attention to the human tendency to use military metaphors and the problems that in turn raises.  Maybe it would make sense to approach the issue of "biological warfare" not from the presumption that there is inevitably someone out there who wants to destroy us and we have to respond in kind but from some other perspective, maybe more akin to achieving an alliance with bacteria rather than putting our energy into a fruitless effort to destroy them?
Any maybe, rather than doing whatever research we can find someone to support (or to do research "of whatever kind we want) , we, as scientists, have some obligation to science itself, to assure that what we do contributes rather than detracts from the future progress of inquiry?  Its from this perspective that I'm intrigued by the notion of a commitment to avoid doing research "aimed at destroying."  Maybe science (and each of us as  scientists) has "a substantive role to play in the ongoing evolution of the human story of meaning and purpose" and so we should be encouraging rather than opposing diversity?
My hope is also that [this paper] will encourage the practitioners of science to pay more attention to the values and significance of the enterprise in which they are engaged, to be more attentive to and critical of their own behavior. Should an appreciation of the noble skepticism of science become sufficiently wide-spread to constitute a diverse “army,” so much the better ... Revisiting Science in Culture
"Skepticism" means not only being willing to challenge existing understandings of others but of ourselves as well .... and holding open the possibility that ways of being different from our own may prove to be valuable in the ongoing telling and revising of scientific stories.   Is that impossible given human nature?  For me, human nature is "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am."  For more along these lines, see Gary Olsen's "The age of empathy corrects prevailing notions about human behavior," a review of Frans de Waal's new book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society.

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

scientific code of conduct: who has responsibility?

Does your proposal that scientists not only be "willing to challenge existing understandings of others but of ourselves as well" only apply to professionals rather than to amateurs? Since professional scientists have the potential to impact their respective populations/countries I can see why it might be necessary to critically predict scientific legacy. However, hypothetically speaking, if I could afford high-grade equipment what is to stop me from experimenting on, say, chick embryos to see what knock-out assays or transgenic splicing would do? And what if I choose not to terminate said chick embryos after observing their development but rather choose to let them live in order to observe behavior into adulthood? Some may deem that letting intentionally deformed creatures live is an abomination and violates bioethics. However, an amateur might say that their experiments are meant only for their personal musings and are not intentioned to impact society.

RachelBrady's picture

  In our discussion, what


In our discussion, what struck me as odd was the comment that seemed to prerequisite, many of the opinions about the use of bio-defense/ weapons programs, ‘if someone were to take arms against us then we should mobilize to protect ourselves’. I found this impulse to defend an offensive position in the face of outside aggression in myself, and it almost seemed to counter the rational position I held on the topic. I wonder if this is a culturally enforced impulse or if it is just a natural human occurrence.
Lisa B.'s picture

The Evolution of Weapon Technology


The human reaction to protect oneself could be a combination of both a culturally enforced impulse and a natural human occurrence. Weapons and humans have a long history in the story of evolution from the atlatl (spear-thrower), used by Homo sapiens since the Upper Paleolithic, to modern biological warfare. For thousands of years humans have used tools to outcompete predators, but in recent times open communication between communities has developed an extra component to weapon technology. Today, many developed and developing countries consider the United States a superpower. This power could have resulted in the cultural phenomenon discussed in class, that some US citizens have the opinion that the US should defend its status against advances in foreign bio-defense programs.