Synthetic Bioterrorism Is A Serious Threat, Military Officials Warn

This might not be a shock to anyone but bioterrorism is a serious threat not only to the United States but to the world as a whole. A new report released recently by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine delves into the scary new realm of synthetic bioterrorism. Bioterrorism itself has been around for a long time, but synthetic bioterrorism is a fairly new concept that is quite frankly pretty scary.

The U.S. Department of Defense commissioned the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (we will abbreviate this to NASEM to shorten things up) to all look into what the primary effects would be from, as they phrased it in their report, “synthetic biology”. NASEM defines synthetic biology as, “technologies to predictably modify or create organisms or biological components” in their pretty extensive report about synthetic bioterrorism (which can be found here). The report is extremely interesting, and it really dives into some ideas that science fiction conjured up years ago, like editing genomes and evolution to viruses.

Army volunteers practice a bioterrorism drill in South Korea. Image source: Army.mil

One of the focuses of this study is the ability to create viruses and illnesses that have already been eradicated in a lab. A “bad guy” could get their hands on some DNA of smallpox, or rinderpest, or even polio. Point is, in the wrong hands (not that someone bringing back an eradicated illness is the good guy either) this type of bioterrorism could kill millions of people since we are no longer vaccinated against those threats that have already been eliminated. It could even be possible that when those diseases are brought back that they are slightly different and are deadlier than they were before.

Another idea this report looked into gene editing where a deadly disease could be made worse. With biotechnology being accessible to more and more people, this threat is growing substantially larger. The report states, in regards to genome editing, that “using biological components that may be intended to cause harm. In the context of synthetic biology, an agent could be a pathogen, a toxin, or even a biological component, such as a genetic construct or a biochemical pathway that may be developed with the intent to harm a human target”.

It is very important to note that this report was not all doom and gloom. NASEM did dedicate time to discuss the benefits the synthetic biology have provided us, such as higher revenues and even new options used for pharmaceuticals. Another really cool thing currently being developed are microorganisms that will basically clean up spills such as oils and toxic spills. So, as with most things in life, there are malicious uses for things that provide benefits for humans.

Defense Against Bioterrorism

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Because synthetic bioterrorism poses such a serious threat to national security, it is important to research and understand what could be going on. This study was given to the Department of Defense for them to come up with a framework of how to handle this looming threat but offered no pointers or tips on how to handle it. Just like with other forms of technology, biotechnology is a fast-paced field that is constantly growing, so it is very difficult for officials to keep up with it since new developments are constantly being made.

What Should You Do During A Bioterrorist Attack?

In a world after 2001 we have to always be on alert. Whether it is flying planes into buildings, blowing up concert venues, driving cars into large crowds of people, or sending anthrax in envelopes in the mail, we no longer have the luxury to not think about terrorism. While you and your family may have planned some sort of emergency plan where you have detailed what to do in case of a major terror attack, you might not have thought about (or known what to do) about a biological terror attack. If you and your family do not a planner for what to do in the event of a terror attack this one here is pretty good at explaining everything and it has various links to answer questions.

Unfortunately, if there is a biological terror attack it may not be very noticeable at first, and reports will be very localized. Once medical officials are able to tell that it is an attack (they have their own training and guidelines) they will alert the public through phone calls, radio alerts, and TV broadcasts. When that happens, you will need to be prepared to handle and protect not only yourself but your family as well. Here are some good instructions to follow:

  1.  Before a biological threat even happens you might want to invest in having HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters in your return duct, this will actually filter out many biological agents that could enter your home
  2. One of the most important things to do is to make sure you are near and are paying attention to the TV or are staying up to date on the internet and radio
    1. This is so you know the symptoms so you can identify them in yourself and others
    2. If vaccinations and medication become available then you will need to know where to pick it up at
  3. If there are substances around stay away from them and wear a gas mask or layers of cotton around your mouth to avoid breathing them in
  4. If you are exposed to any biological agent you will need to remove and bag your clothing and dispose of them
    1. You may need to be quarantined as well, so contact officials if you get into contact with the biologic agent
  5. If you start showing symptoms like those described in the attack you will need to seek medical attention ASAP if you are with a group
    1. You do not want to spread it to your family or the rest of the group you are with

Once the attack is over it is important to still follow official instructions because medical aid and vaccinations will still be given out. This stuff might seem scary but being unprepared in this type of emergency is scarier than the attack itself. You need to be prepared for the worst but hope for the best.

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