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

3 thoughts on “Nukes and Germs: Comparing Nuclear Weapons and Biological Pathogens

  1. Stew, I enjoyed reading your blog post. One major flaw that I found in the Nouri reading was the emphasis of “self-reporting research activities” when it comes to the subject of these biological weapons. The author does admit that these actions will not stop illicit use of these weapons. I agree with you that the proposed suggestions will not be enough to stop the use of these chemical and biological weapons.

    You also mentioned the point about the ease of the creation of biological and chemical weapons in comparison with nuclear weapons. I did some research and it appears as though the use of these chemical weapons are relatively easy, especially in comparison with nuclear weapons. A 2014 chemical attack in Kafr Zita, Syria was an example of this. Witnesses claimed that the chemical weapons came from a barrel bomb which is an unguided bomb made of shrapnel and other chemicals. In comparison with the weapons that the US uses in the region, barrel bombs are relatively simple and unfortunately their simplicity and lack of preciseness causes for indiscriminate targeting of civilians. If you want to read more, I attached a link which explains the witness accounts of the attacks including: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27001737 One person claimed that “Regime planes bombed Kafr Zita with explosive barrels that produced thick smoke and odours and led to cases of suffocation and poisoning.”

  2. Stew made a compelling case that the development of biological was inherently different from the development of nuclear weapons. We’ve discussed in class how biotechnology is too widespread and too small-scale to be effectively regulated. Whereas nuclear weapon programs require large reactors and highly enriched uranium, in theory, bioweapons could be created in a one room lab by a single scientist. The PCAST, and others, further argue that limits on biotech could impede the creation of life-saving drugs or agricultural enhancements (5).

    I think, however, the dual-use technology in bioweapons is not nearly as different from the dual-use tech in nuclear weapons as biologists have you believe. Like biotech, nuclear technology was once promised as a panacea for humanity’s ills, with the potential to ”make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden.”** Today, both the life-changing and life-ending potential of nuclear technology is understood, and nuclear development programs are regulated accordingly. The biological sciences are younger, haven’t led to a major attack, and benefit from the low-regulation status quo. That’s no reason not to regulate them.

    I thought Nouri’s proposals for bioweapon control sounded both sensible and effective. Nouri claims that there “is no bottleneck” in bioweapon production (235). However, at the time of publication, it seemed like access to a synthesizer was a type of bottleneck. Access could be restricted to the synthesizer, effectively stopping people from making new DNA sequences. (Correct me on this, but CRISPR can only “edit” existing sequences not generate new ones? I’d be interested to learn how things have changed since 2009, and what he thinks about CRISPR.) I don’t see a reason why these machines have to be decentralized as Nouri predicts they will be (235). Other checks that Nouri dismisses, including physical lab inspections (235), didn’t strike me as particularly burdensome. Certainly, nuclear scientists have learned to deal with them.

    **Lecture 2, p 251 The Interpretation of Radium Third Edition, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1912, books.google.com

  3. As I was beginning to write this reply, I got a notification from CNN with the headline, “Unknown substance investigated,” stating that “11 people are ill after a suspicious letter was opened at a military base in Arlington, Virginia. 3 individuals were transported to the hospital.” While this is breaking news and there is not much more information available right now, I think it is a clear illustration of what Stew described earlier in regards to how we treat biological weapons and nuclear weapons. In comparing the readings this week to the nuclear unit readings, Stew is right in noticing a difference in pre-emptive policies and reactionary policies. Even with screening mail and packages, it is still possible for something to get through without detection, as evidenced by the news today. Additionally, as seen in the 1984 and 2001 attacks discussed in lecture today, biological weapons can be used, or accidentally released, by anyone, not just nations.

    And this is scene in the literature. The PCAST report discuses the intentional misuse of CRISPR to re-create viruses, research into pathogens that are resistant to “first-line therapeutic drugs,” and the intentional release of biological weapons across multiple geographic areas in a consorted effort. (3-4). This can be by nation states, domestic or foreign terrorist groups, or even through the accidental release from research facilities, meaning the source of biological weapons can be very unpredictable. Furthermore, the emphasis on surveillance at multiple levels (humans, animals, plants being brought back, etc.) throughout the report highlight this unpredictability. Because of this, it is hard to pre-empt a strike. Nuclear weapons on the other hand, as Grace mentioned, require a massive system of supplies, engineers, and reactors that require national resources to sustain. Thus, it would be very unlikely that a terrorist group or a person acting on their own would be able to obtain a weapon. With only certain actors in control of nuclear weapons, and all other nuclear reactors in the world heavily regulated, you can create plans, like the Plan A video we saw last week, to pre-empt an attack, to use intelligence systems, detterence etc.

    Another point I think that is important to note, is response time. If a nuclear weapon is used everything within the blast zone is immediately or almost immediately destroyed. Thus, pre-empting an attack is important or at least having warning signs to try and evacuate a population. With biological weapons, there can be an incubation period for the disease, a delayed response of some kind, etc. so crisis response plans make the most sense. However, as seen in the Nouri article there are some pre-emptive policies in the works for biotech and biological weapons, with DNA synthesizing computers scanning for possibly harmful sequences, have widespread vaccination policies, or using gene-therapy to wipe out harmful pathogens.

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