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Coronavirus as an eyeopener for bioterrorism

Technological advancement, novel scientific discoveries and innovations inherently bring the opportunity to act against the welfare of intelligent life. Some innovations bear only minimum risk with a low potential for disaster, but some innovations are highly riskful and have to be dealt with delicately in order to reduce the risk for malicious use. The assessment of risk is weighed against the potential benefits new innovations bring in order to evaluate if research can be continued ethically. In most cases, the continuation of research is certain, as in the development of new methods for cancer therapy. However, some research has notoriously been advocated against by the public and academia, such as the development of nuclear weapons, where we today unanimously realize that the benefits did not outweigh the risks, and are facing the constant risk of annihilation because of it. Many are weary of the risks biotechnology brings, afraid of the sudden appearance of yet another threatening weapon of mass destruction - and rightfully so.


If a deadly and contagious enough bioweapon were to be developed by in a lab with failing safety precautions or by bioterrorists, it may be the last innovation ever created.



An analogy of the risks brought on by innovation are elegantly exercised in the vulnerable world hypothesis [1]. Here, all possible innovations, ideas and discoveries lie in an urn, in the form of balls, and the shade of the ball defines its risk for detrimental outcome. So far, we’ve drawn many white balls and only a few grey balls with low to moderate risks associated with them. However, when reaching down into the urn of innovation we’re always running the risk of picking a black ball - one that unfailingly results in the destruction of civilization.

When considering the advancement in biotechnology, we must constantly keep in mind the possibility of drawing a black ball, and we must, to the best of our ability, try to predict the shade of the ball before it’s drawn, because once a ball is drawn, it cannot be put back. 


The shade of a ball isn’t only dependent on the damage a product of that innovation will result in, but also the availability of the product. An innovation with 100% certainty of killing 100 individuals isn’t a black ball in the urn of innovations since it doesn’t result in the destruction of civilization, although, if the product is unusually easy to create it could certainly be of a darker shade. Imagine what would occur if a bomb, say a bunker buster which has the capacity of destroying military bunkers (as fittingly hinted at by its name), could be created by putting a football in a trash can. This innovation is highly unlikely, but if true, tremendously dangerous - several times more dangerous than the innovation is today. This is both due to the ease of creating it but also due to the wide availability of footballs and trash cans. Similarly, the shade could be determined by the possible countermeasures towards the innovation. If a deadly virus which is countered by an already widespread vaccine would be created, the severity of that creation is much lesser than it would have been if the vaccine was unavailable. 


A black ball is certainly unwanted, however, not unimaginable, especially not in the realm of biotechnology. In light of the mitigating efforts in fighting Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2), our capacities for fighting viral agents are indisputably limited. As described by Simon Tisdall in The Guardian our global planning for the prevention of the present disaster is leaderless, lacking and late [2]. Our global and national infrastructure is failing to deal with the vast amount of Covid-19 cases, wreaking havoc both locally, in the form of lacking hospital beds and respirators, as well as unemployment, and globally, in the form of economic downfall. SARS-Cov-2 was most likely the result of animal wet-markets in Wuhan, China, where many species of live or freshly slaughtered animals are kept in near proximity, however, many conspiracies have risen regarding the origin [3]. Some believe that the virus was created in a laboratory outside of Wuhan, and wasn’t the result of cross-species contamination but of scientific endeavours. I certainly don’t condone the spread nor the validation of such unlikely speculations, however, the concept of creating a virus in a lab isn’t science fiction but is in fact widely applied in synthetic biology and other genetic engineering-practices. Although it wasn’t the case for this virus, the current outbreak should invite us to consider the possibility of a synthetic virus created with malevolent intent. 



Such a virus has been created before, although not with malevolent intent, and was a result of experimentation on the H5N1-virus (commonly known as the bird flu) in 2011. The researchers wanted to investigate if the highly deadly virus (with a mortality rate of up to 60%) could mutate in nature to become more contagious in mammals, and did so by genetic engineering [4, 5]. Successfully, they created a more contagious version of the virus which was capable of airborne transmission between mammals, and were later heavily criticized due to their lack of ethical consideration before conducting the research. The steadily increasing capabilities researchers posses in the realm of genetic engineering suggests that if such experiments were conducted in 2011, the availability of similar studies are significantly greater today. Similarly, the forthcoming of novel biohacking communities and the growth of the already existing ones, suggests that not only is the technical availability greater, but also subject to greater risk of realization. 


This is seemingly a recipe for disaster - a cry for a black ball in the urn of innovations. The wide availability, weak countermeasures and severe impact results in a doomsday machine, counting down the days until disaster. Luckily, established communities such as The International Genetically Modified Machine (iGEM) have policies and rules against potentially hazardous research, and ensure that all members undergo thorough considerations regarding the safety as well as the ethics of their projects [6]. Although these countermeasures could be regarded as weak, since they only affect the members of single communities, and aren’t strictly enforceable. Luckily, one would need to have a rather advanced insight into the science of genetic engineering to be able to create a deadly bioweapon, insight which is often connected to academia and regulated institutions. Although one can, with some certainty, conclude that as research continues to ease the way in which to biohack, the practice of genetic engineering will seep out of the realm of academia and into the hands of amateur practitioners. Let’s hope that your crazy, paranoid and doomsday-evoking neighbour down the street doesn’t get her hands on a viral agent and a biohacking-kit. 


SynthEthics will continue to investigate the ethical implications of advancement in synthetic biology and genetic engineering as well as the possibility of bioweapons and malicious research.




[1] Bostrom N., “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis” 11-2019, Taken from [internet]:  https://nickbostrom.com/papers/vulnerable.pdf

[2]Tisdall S., The Guardian  “Leaderless, lacking and late: a global plan to fight coronavirus is desperately needed” 04-2020 Taken from [internet]: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/leaderless-lacking-and-late-a-global-plan-to-fight-coronavirus-is-desperately-needed

[3] Woodward A., Business Insider. “Both the new coronavirus and SARS outbreaks likely started in Chinese 'wet markets.' Historic photos show what the markets looked like” 02-2020 Taken from [internet]: .https://www.businessinsider.com/wuhan-coronavirus-chinese-wet-market-photos-2020-1?r=US&IR=T

[4] Herfst S, Schrauwen EJ, Linster M, et al. “Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets” 06-2012, Taken from [internet] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4810786/

[5] Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; Policy and Global Affairs; Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Forum on Microbial Threats; Board on Global Health; National Research Council; Institute of Medicine. Perspectives on Research with H5N1 Avian Influenza: Scientific Inquiry, Communication, Controversy: Summary of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Apr 4. Appendix C, The Two Published H5N1 Papers. Available from :https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK206985/

[6] International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Safety, Taken 05-2020 from [internet]:  https://2020.igem.org/Safety

Picture 2: https://richardaustinwriter.com/2019/05/03/the-vulnerable-world-raindrops-in-a-cloud/

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