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Friday, 22 June 2018

US military wants to know what synthetic-biology weapons could look like

Comment: US military telegraphing what they already know and what they are already experimenting with. Their "concerns" and curiosity are merely a way to suggest Russia is at fault or a legion of terrorists (most of which have been created and funded by the same minds). It's an interesting article when seen as a snapshot of their objectives. 


Antonio Regalado
MIT Tech Review

A study ordered by the US Department of Defense has concluded that new genetic-engineering tools are expanding the range of malicious uses of biology and decreasing the amount of time needed to carry them out.
The new tools aren’t in themselves a danger and are widely employed to create disease-resistant plants and new types of medicine. However, rapid progress by companies and university labs raises the specter of “synthetic-biology-enabled weapons,” according to the 221-page report.

The report, issued by the National Academies of Sciences, is among the first to try to rank national security threats made possible by recent advances in gene engineering such as the gene-editing technology CRISPR.

“Synthetic biology does expand the risk. That is not a good-news story,” says Gigi Gronvall, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins and one of the report’s 13 authors. “This report provides a framework to systematically evaluate the threat of misuse.”

Experts are divided on the perils posed by synthetic biology, a term used to describe a wide set of techniques for speeding genetic engineering. In 2016, the US intelligence community placed gene editing on its list of potential weapons of mass destruction.

“Many different groups have written and spoken about the topic, with a wide spread of opinion,” says D. Christian Hassell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, who commissioned the report in order to obtain a “consensus opinion from among the top leaders and thinkers” in the field.

Hassell says the military’s current view is that “synbio is not a major threat issue at the moment” but bears preparing for, in part because defenses like vaccines can take years to develop.

The current report attempted to weigh potential threats by considering factors such as the technical barriers to implementation, the scope of casualties, and the chance of detecting an attack. It found that while “some malicious applications of synthetic biology may not seem plausible right now, they could become achievable with future advances.”

Among the risks the authors termed of “high concern” is the possibility that terrorists or a nation-state could re-create a virus such as smallpox. That is a present danger because a technology for synthesizing a virus from its DNA instructions has previously been demonstrated.

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