When Time Is Running Out

In a November 2016 letter to the President, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) offers recommendations to the U.S. government for its reactions to the growing field of advanced biotechnology. While the council emphasizes the need for increasingly developed biotechnology and biosurveillance strategies, PCAST also hints at a more somber truth – once a threatening pathogen is on the loose, there isn’t much they can do.

While, through this letter, PCAST establishes recommended measures for dealing with biotechnology and the prospect of an active bioattack, its real emphasis is on prevention. As PCAST observes, “it is possible that a well-planned, well-executed attack might go unnoticed for days or weeks.” With a U.S. population of 318.9 million citizens spread across 3.797 million square miles, the brewing of a dangerous bioattack is likely to go unnoticed in its vulnerable early stages, making the detection of a pre-epidemic strand extremely difficult.

Further, the council emphasizes that the U.S.’ chances of escape from a bioattack depend on “effective detection,” “response,” and “recovery capabilities.” If a bioattack has the capability of reaching the level of an epidemic (Ro > 1), it will likely have the capability of spreading before eradication measures instilled by the government can catch up. PCAST makes the harrowing statement, “Despite recent improvements, analysis by U.S. Government agencies confirms that the pace of vaccine development and deployment remains too slow to materially affect the outcome of most plausible attacks.” According to PCAST, once a bioattack is out there, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reel back in. Because of the severe ramifications of a bioattack on the loose and lack of the ability for prompt eradication, PCAST highlights the need for “enhanced threat awareness” and “deterrence.”

This introduces a tough parallel – though prevention is the government’s strongest defensive measure, the thought of a raging bioattack is a frightening prospect for most citizens and politicians alike. Consequently, PCAST still issues a long-term recommendation for a development of a countermeasures program. The question PCAST faces is, how should limited government resources be best allocated when facing a faceless enemy? How much priority should be given to “recovery capabilities” rather than prevention? Perhaps, rather little. — Katherine

Reframing the Race Against Climate Change

In response to Robert H. Socolow and Alexander Glaser’s article Balancing risks: Nuclear energy & Climate Change, I found the prospect of multinational ownership of nuclear power plants to be the most intriguing, and in particular its relationship to the disarmament of nations possessing nuclear weapons. In the article’s discussion of the disarmament process, Socolow and Glaser suggested a new way to frame the nuclear debate with relation to climate change. When thinking of nuclear power purely in terms of mitigating climate change, numerous problems arise which are stated in the article: the potential for nuclear weapon proliferation, the fact that rapid nuclear expansion would lead to a crisis for storage of spent fuels, the debate over reprocessing, etc. For nuclear energy to have a significant impact on climate change the expansion must be global.

Therefore, I would like to put forth specific point made in Socolow and Glaser’s article as a critical to the argument for nuclear expansion at the same time as nuclear disarmament. They propose, “a world considerably safer for nuclear power could emerge as a co-benefit of the nuclear disarmament process” (Socolow, Glaser, 31). This description of nuclear expansion posits it as a “by-product” of the disarmament process. From this perspective, nuclear power’s ability to slow climate change would also be a “by-product.” When thinking of the desire to mitigate climate change it seems that this reframing of the debate could be extremely powerful. While it is important to set goals for climate change mitigation and prioritize it, if the debate is focused more significantly on nuclear disarmament and relating solutions such as multinational power plants, safety can remain the first and foremost priority of the nuclear power debate. This would have other benefits, for example Glaser and Socolow mentioned that another reason why countries other than current nuclear weapon holders don’t build nuclear power plants is a lack of engineers and scientists with the experience to create and run a plant. Making power plants multinational would therefore be able to help such problems and ease tensions with less developed countries.

Ultimately, nuclear power is but one “wedge” out of the many required for a real different to be made to the looming climate change. Therefore, safety should be the most important factor. Re-defining the debate as one of nuclear disarmament is one way to not overlook the most significant threats to the safety of nuclear expansion. — Mikaela

CRISPR: The Break Down of DNA & Its Ethical Dilemma

Declared at an international level, the Geneva Protocol in 1925 incredibly impacted the stance with which major powers view the use of bioterrorism. There is in a sense the fear of unpredictable spread during warfare, and easy accessibility would create a war without clear opponents – that those who have produced biological agents may be able to keep their identities concealed, or even the identity of the mutation’s agent.

I was particularly interested in the CRISPR method, which is more or less a gene editing toolkit that uses an engineered bacterial protein Cas9 to manipulate RNA to target certain DNA sequences. Several critics claim that the creation of a “gene drive” goes too far, and after reviewing other articles about CRISPR, I found that a modified mushroom and type of corn have passed under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, making them the first Cas9 crops. The reasoning is that CRISPR does not qualify under regulations, which calls to question the rate at which innovation is growing and the rate at which legislation passes to critically eye innovation. While there are critics calling CRISPR products “hidden GMOs”, there is also the belief that trying to regulate CRISPR will then hurt technological growth.

The greatest fear is not just the proliferation of bio-warfare in a target area and its unpredictability to spread; even more so, if there exist gene-editing toolkits with easy accessibility like CRISPR, this leaves room for adaptation by threatening states – states not within the Geneva Protocol or any form of multilateral agreement. And even more so, products to battle sickle-cell could mutate on their own – the unpredictability of changing a DNA sequence is hazardous, especially since CRISPR still does not take into account certain ribosomes and other microorganisms which could affect the DNA sequence. From my research, there do not exist studies of the long-term effects of CRISPR on DNA sequences, especially with exposure to the carcinogens of someone’s day-to-day.

While there is fear of over-regulating the potential innovations of CRISPR and similar engineering programs, the inability to tell between a modified organism (among other modes of CRISPR’s influence) makes me believe that it would be better to regulate the gene drive; that the government should recognize these new products – perhaps not as GMOs – but with some label and way of tagging CRISPR-linked products. Though the tag may stigmatize the application of CRISPR, it would certainly act as a precautionary. — Lucas

Mitigating Shortcuts to Prevent New Disease Fronts

As depicted in fictional movies like Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995), new deadly viruses are cropping up via accidental interactions with nature and via purposeful scientific research. Compounded with modern modes of transportation, these deadly diseases have the lethal potential to spread worldwide overnight and become widespread pandemics that wipe out mankind.

Beginning in the last few hundred years, diseases no longer spread via predictable two-dimensional directions. The boundary of where a disease encounters and infects new victims – called the disease front – is now incredibly difficult to map as planes, trains, and automobiles can create new fronts thousands of miles away from an initial outbreak.

Before the 1700s, the size of an infected population did not really matter since the size of any disease front – like a ripple emanating from a single point – was predictable and relatively fixed in size. Because of their slow two-dimensional spread, only the most infectious diseases developed into true epidemics (even the black plague of the 14th century is considered weak as it had a slow three-year spread from southern Italy throughout Europe). Thus if a two-dimensional epidemic happened today, it would be slow and creeping, and public health officials would be able to respond to the well-defined disease front quickly.

Of course, however, modern society no longer allows for simple two-dimensional spreads. The ease and speed of transportation creates shortcuts in which viruses can break into fresh territory and create new disease fronts. Instead of fighting an outbreak in a localized area, viruses can now travel across countries and continents, creating new outbreaks, new victims, and new disease fronts.

For instance, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that crippled English cattle farms in 2001 did not have two-dimensional spread although that is what was expected based off how the virus usually spreads: the virus spreads between animals through direct contact, by wind-blown droplets of excrement, or by soil. A two-dimensional spread would have been expected, yet foot-and-mouth disease struck simultaneously on 43 non-neighboring farms. Modern transportation, modern livestock markets, and soil from people’s boots were all shortcuts that allowed the disease to be introduced to new victims, and suddenly animals could be infected anywhere in the nation overnight.

Shortcuts in modern transportation are in essence random, and government officials must create policies that mitigate them in order to effectively stop the spread of an epidemic in its earliest stages. English officials minimized shortcuts by eliminating livestock interaction, preemptively slaughtering nearby cattle farms, and banning travel on countryside roads. Ultimately, the discovery of lethal diseases is inevitable, so we must conduct research to better understand transportation networks and to eliminate shortcuts that will transplant diseases in fresh territory. — Delaney

Ending the Nuclear Threat

As we’ve previously discussed in this class, the specter of nuclear war haunts the world – so it prompts the question – can we ever eliminate nuclear weapons from the world? It’s an optimistic goal that has long been in the sights of activists, and as the documents from the United Nations General Assembly (L.41) and Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will demonstrate (A Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons), they’re aspirations for intergovernmental bodies and NGOs as well. Although the Cold War is over, large stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain, posing a significant risk to the safety of the world. The only way to ensure safety moving forward, according to these documents, is for multilateral disarmament among the world’s nuclear powers. Previous treaty frameworks already allude to the eventual disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is what this group calls the “cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.” To that end, the Working Group of the UN General Assembly is convening a 2017 conference in New York to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Let’s hope that they’re successful in producing a legal end to nuclear weapons. However, the question remains as to whether the nuclear-armed countries will acquiesce to such a ban.

Other weapons of mass destruction like chemical and biological weapons are governed by international treaties effectively banning their use; however, nuclear weapons have no such prohibition. Right now, what’s needed most is political will among the potential signatory countries to sign, enact, and then enforce a nuclear weapons ban. It might seem like the non-nuclear armed countries have little leverage over the nuclear-armed countries, but to give an interesting example, in 1987, New Zealand passed nuclear free zone legislation, which caused the United States to suspend its military alliance with it, but eventually the United States restored its alliance anyway. Broader security concerns seem to outweigh the desire to have nuclear weapons. Furthermore, as the Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will report posits, it is also possible to move forward with a complete ban on nuclear weapons without the support of the nuclear-armed powers. Perhaps the incremental process of eliminating nuclear weapons is insufficient for achieving the real goal of a world without nuclear weapons. We have to ask ourselves – what are we willing to commit in order to achieve a nuclear-free world? — Nicholas

Bioweapons Then and Now

“Bioterrorism could kill more than nuclear war – but no one is ready to deal with it,” says Bill Gates at the recent Munich Security Conference (Washington Post, 2017). His remarks focused on the world’s governments’ relative lack of preparation to respond to any pandemic, manmade or not. Although the probabilities of either large-scale war event are low, the potential threat of a deadly biological weapon on major civilian areas is high. Even developed countries’ public health regulations and precautions could provide little defense towards a virulent, engineered microbe.

Bioweapons were originally considered in the same league as chemical weapons until germ theory and epidemiology were well understood. After use in World War I, chemical weapons faced opposition by the public and many governments around the world for its inhumane killing mechanism. The Geneva Protocol, signed 1925, prohibited chemical weapon use primarily – bioweapon use was included on the virtue of similar unconventionality. While bioweapons were ineffective for the short battlefield timescales, some saw the wartime advantages of using them to cripple enemy cities, economies, and supplies. The Protocol did not have binding restrictions nor enforcement, and states such as France and the Soviet Union pursued bioweapon research and development under intense secrecy. According to the Guillemin chapter, a few visionary scientists were responsible for advocating for and heading the state-sponsored programs in the face of adverse international treaties and public opinion. This stands in contrast with scientists’ attitudes towards nuclear weapons, who were more reluctant to aid in development after recognizing its destructive power. As a few countries developed bioweapons under secrecy, the threat of the unknown spurred other countries to adopt defensive programs to understand bioweapons. These programs gradually expanded into offensive capabilities. For example, the U.S. tested how sprayed microbials might spread in a metropolitan area by releasing a benign bacteria over San Francisco in 1950 (PBS, 2017). Fortunately, these weapons were never used and President Richard Nixon denounced them completely in 1969. Not much later, 151 parties signed the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 which formally banned development, production, and possession of bioweapons.

Today, bioterrorism is a more likely source of biological attacks. It requires malicious intent, process know-how, and the right supplies – all of which are available. While crude nuclear devices can also be fashioned with general ease, domestic and international nuclear activity is much more closely monitored than biological research is. It would be rather difficult to regulate and restrict activities that could be precursors to bioweapons. Rather, governments may only have responsive measures to counter this form of terrorism, of which Bill Gates claims governments have not seriously considered yet. — Frank

Local Actions, Global Consequences

Given recent advances in science and technology, the state of the earth is currently teetering on the brink of widespread catastrophe. Yet, it may not even take a global nuclear war to spawn global devastation. As both Robock and Toon’s “Local Nuclear War” and the 1954 short film “The House in the Middle” emphasize, it is perhaps the regional actions that are set to be the most transformative of our global security. A local nuclear war between India and Pakistan, for example, would not only kill more than 20 million civilians in the 2 countries, but would induce climatic responses that would last for at least 10 years. As smoke from the explosion remains suspended in the stratosphere, the particles absorb so much sunlight that surface temperatures are cooled and the ozone layer depleted. Thus, a regionally produced smoke local to two countries has now induced a global climatic response that would lead to widespread famines, increased ultraviolet radiation, and shortened agricultural growing seasons.

Meanwhile, the heat effects of atomic exposure on American homes is largely dictated by the extent of local housekeeping. Two houses identical in structure and exterior condition had drastically different reactions to thermal heat wave produced in an atomic blast due to different internal housekeeping, as the house with the cluttered room burst into flames while the tidied house remained aloft. Varied external housekeeping conditions also produced varied consequences, as both a littered, unpainted house and a dry and rotten house burst into flames after exposure to thermal heat, while a house in good clean condition with a light coat of paint only had slight charring of the painted outer surface. Thus, actions as local as housekeeping can sum to larger global consequences.

Yet, humans regularly fail to have the cognitive capacity to foresee the long-term and global effects of their focal actions. When they litter or fail to paint their homes, rarely do they think that the cost of their laziness is their individual, communal, and global security in the event of an atomic explosion. Similarly, policy makers tend to put the interest of national security at the forefront of their agenda without realizing the global tradeoffs of their regional decisions. Would it be possible to convince global leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely? From a scientific standpoint this seems to be the decision with the greatest positive outcome, yet from a political economic standpoint, the imminent risk of national security leads to hesitation. Perhaps global cooperation between nation states—a universal covenant to exchange national security for global security—is the ideal solution; yet, whether this is realistically feasible in a world so focused on the present seems much less certain. — Crystal

Secrecy for Security?

The work at Los Alamos was marked by an extreme level of secrecy. The town was fenced in by a barbed-wire barricade and mail was censored (Brode, Tales of Los Alamos, 1997). Bohr commented on this philosophy with Oppenheimer. It was Bohr’s belief that the results of the Trinity Test should be shared – such that nations will understand the power of the atomic bomb, and through open communication come to the conclusion that the production of atomic weapons is foolish. He advocated against secrets.

This stands in stark contrast to the view that Truman expressed in a statement immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He emphasized that, while contrary to the principles of research, scientific knowledge regarding the production and applications of atomic bombs must be kept secret, for security purposes (Statement by the President of the United States, White House Press Release, August 6, 1945).

With regards to modern-day national security, it is hard to say which view is proper. Relying on the “reasoning of men” to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction may be a naïve view of the rationality of, for example, terrorist groups. Yet, information will inevitably spread. Perhaps shared information and open discussion may be the best way to ensure the proper use of dual-use technology, and, as Bohr would assert, foster the kind of respect that emerges from open communication (Fetter-Vorm, 2012). — Mary Helen