Nukes and Germs: Comparing Nuclear Weapons and Biological Pathogens

The second half of readings for this week focus on new developments in the field of biological warfare. The Letter to the President outlines the emerging threats: cheaper, more effective technologies, a better understanding of how to use them, and the US’s inadequate defensive measures. They recommend a network of early warning systems, bolstered domestic public health capacities especially in identifying and producing responses to pathogens, monitoring of outbreaks in other countries, cooperation and aid to countries who also lack sophisticated countermeasures to either biological attacks or natural disease outbreaks.

A few things struck me about these recommendations when compared to what we’ve studied so far with nuclear weapons. Our policy aims and recommendations to deal with nuclear threats are mostly preemptive: prevent countries from acquiring weapons, and, for those that have them, reduce the chances that they’ll use them. The recommendations concerning biological weapons thought are primarily reactive though. Aside from some mentions of establishing best practices in research, the countermeasures above address useful preparation systems.

The Nouri and Chyba reading was unique in that in did recommend trying to preempt proliferation of biological agents using software design. I’m skeptical about that approach though. Aside from the fact that the paper, dated from 2009, doesn’t address CRISPR developments, I think that putting absolute faith in software updates, from a computer science perspective, seems sketchy at best. Can we really meaningfully prevent deliberate development of dangerous biological weapons that way? It seems like the biggest barrier is simply the expertise it would take to develop them successfully, which the Ledford readings implied was a rapidly shrinking roadblock.

I think the ultimate driver behind this difference is that, unlike nuclear weapons, there’s no clear bottle neck for the production of biological weapons. Moreover, it seems like the development of legitimate research technology improvements will necessarily make biological weapons easier to make. In fact, our readings about the recent CRISPR developments seem more concerned about accidents than deliberate attacks, and some scientists, in the Bohannon reading for example, implied that it would be better to figure out what’s possible than risk being caught off guard. Nuclear threats seem totally different from biological ones then. With nuclear weapons, we face a constant and pretty simple danger: either being blown up or starving in a nuclear winter. There’s also no precedent for their use in combat after WWII. On the other hand, biological weapons have been used before, as recently as 2001, and they present a mostly unknown and variable threat. Are we more afraid of the unknown they present and fear they crate than of their destructive power? It’s unclear to me exactly why the early prohibitions against them in the 20’s came about otherwise. And although most governments abandoned their biological weapons programs, it seems they did so because they weren’t as destructive or practical as they’d hoped. Can we do anything more than prepare ourselves for a biological attack or accident, and does one seem inevitable given the decentralization of potent new technologies? — Stew