Abstract: Recent developments in biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology have made it possible to engineer living organisms. Although these developments offer effective and efficient means with which to cure disease, increase food production, and improve quality of life for many people, they can also be used by state and non-state actors to develop engineered biological weapons. The virtuous circle of bioinformatics, engineering principles, and fundamental biological science also serves as a vicious cycle by lowering the skill-level necessary to produce weapons. The threat of bioengineered agents is all the more clear as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the enormous impact that a single biological agent, even a naturally occurring one, can have on society. It is likely that terrorist organizations are monitoring these developments closely and that the probability of a biological attack with an engineered agent is steadily increasing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that significant biological threats can and will emerge from nature without warning, demonstrating that a single viral strain can have a profound impact on modern society. It has also demonstrated that infectious diseases can rapidly spread throughout a population without human engineering making them the ideal substrates from which to develop engineered weapons. Viruses and bacteria have been used as weapons for millennia.1 Historically, biological weapons were derived from natural sources, such as anthrax from herbivores and domesticated animals, and smallpox from rodents. Those pathogenic organisms that were found to be suitable for weaponization were cultured directly from the environment; they were then isolated, purified, stored, propagated,a and used to fill biological munitions.2 The most recent of example of this was the production and stockpiling of numerous agents by the biological weapons program of the former Soviet Union. In this program pathogens were selected for specific characteristics directly from the natural environment, propagated, and stored for later use.3 While these pathogens have evolved in nature for the purpose of persisting, they are not optimized for maintenance, storage, and deployment in a military setting. Consequently, while biological agents have not been widely employed as strategic or tactical weapons by state or non-state actors, there are some examples of their use in conflicts. The most significant of these is the well-documented use of crude bacteriological agents by the Japanese army against China during the Second World War.4