In only a few weeks, a shift in the world’s disposition caused the human race to fall flat on its face. An unswerving virus named SARS-CoV-2 crippled the 21st century’s roaring socioeconomic infrastructure, creating a doomsday scenario. 

The resulting disease, COVID-19, led to renewed concern about the ‘palpable threat’ of bioterrorism, showed the ugly face of plutocracy, and revealed selective mutism of the world about the humanitarian crisis. From hegemonic power politics between the US and China to bickering over the production and distribution of the vaccine by allies, we learned that the UN and WHO would be discarded instantly in a crisis. 

It was not fringe conspiracy to imagine the novel coronavirus as a bioweapon, keeping in mind the nefarious economic and political vying for unipolar status between China and the United States. By leaving guns to primitive men, world order and the geo-political podium could be transformed from UN uni-polarity to multi-polarity due to unprecedented developments triggered by a biological agent.

Graphical rendering of a SARS-CoV-2 virus showing the membrane protein (green) and envelope protein (purple) and the characteristic spike protein (orange). Image: KAUST; Xavier Pita

Once the Human Genome Project deciphered the script of life, providing a human genetic blueprint, enormous entries in genomic databases made it possible, perhaps even sinecure, for a bioweaponeer to design highly infectious cryptic viruses. Such viruses might even clandestinely infect a population and later become activated. As genetic engineering has advanced, tailored development of lethal and contagious pathogens is feasible, making biodefense a challenging priority. The dark side of biotechnology, or ‘black biology’, could even mean ‘designer genes’ that can be exploited as lethal bioweapons.

Biological Warfare Since 600 BC

The imbroglio caused by SARS-CoV-2 shifted the world’s attention towards biological warfare as never before. Yet infectious diseases were used as a potential tool in warfare as early as 600 BC. The earliest known example of bio-warfare occurred when Assyrians infected enemy wells with rye ergot fungus, which caused convulsions in those who drank the water and created panic.

There are many others.

In 1495, the Spanish had mixed wine with the blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French foes in Naples. In 1763, during the siege of Fort Pitt, the British army distributed smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans. A Japanese biowarfare program employed more than 3,000 scientists across 150 buildings in Pingfan known as “Unit 731.” It worked on pathogenic microorganisms and diseases such as B.anthracis, Neisseria meningitis, Vibrio cholera, Shigella spp. and Yersinia pestis. Over 10,000 prisoners of war died due to experimentation between 1932 and 1945. Germany spread cholera in Italy and plague in St. Petersburg during World War II.

That led to research in weaponization of organisms such as those causing brucellosis, tularaemia and anthrax during the 1950s and 1960s. Despite signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972, the USSR conducted a clandestine bioweapons program named ‘Biopreparat’ until their collapse. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult had intentionally contaminated salad bars in Oregon restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium causing 751 cases of poisoning. In 2001, Bacillus anthracis spores were sent anonymously in the US postal system that caused 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths. In the ‘Anthrax anxiety’ over 50,000 people took broad spectrum antibiotics and deluged the medical care centers, so even if a pathogen doesn't kill people, it can still stress infrastructure and create panic.

A bioweapon may sound like a giant bazooka, but it is only a few micrometers in size, invisible to human eye. And they are extremely cheap compared to the cost of a nuclear weapons program. As an example, a neuro-toxin ‘botulinum’ infamously known as ‘miracle bio-poison’, secreted by bacteria Clostridium botulinum, is known for its extreme lethality and potency. One gram of crystalline toxin, if evenly circulated and inhaled, can kill more than one million people (Dhaked  &   Singh, 2010). A purified form of botulinum toxin from bacteria Clostridium botulinum is nearly 3 million times more intoxicating than sarin, a chemical nerve agent.

Dr. Piers Millett, an expert on science policy and international security whose work centers on biotechnology and biowarfare articulates, ‘‘Imagine aerosolizing a lovely genome editor that knocks out a specifically nasty gene in your population. It’s a passive thing. You breathe it in and it retroactively alters the population’s DNA.’’

Due to new-fangled DNA editing techniques in genetic engineering domain, constructive or destructive modifications in a biological cell are now a duck soup for the scientists. Such genome editing tools or ‘cut and paste tools’ are rather cheap, displaying immense potential for good use in medical field when used to fix genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis or deadly types of cancer. However, its horrendous use could be made by designing killer mosquitoes, anti-biotic resistant super bugs, and contagious viruses.

Advanced gene editing technologies include CRISPR (Cas9), TALENs, zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs), and homing endonucleases or meganucleases. These scientific breakthroughs have the capacity to kick out a selective gene and insert the desired gene instead, or even design a gene from a scratch. This technological revolution has accelerated myriad discoveries in field of human gene therapy, drug modification, precision genetic medicine, disease modeling, and medical pathology studies. Furthermore, advances in synthetic biology has empowered us to control pathogen’s innate programming language and install genetic logic gates to generate microbes with desirable functions.

Forcing the biology to behave like electronics, microbes equipped with reliable genetic logic gates can have an entire genome ‘boot up’. Re-programming and genetic mixing of different living cells has paved a smooth road for development of binary biological weapons and highly infectious micro-organism. In a study, a strain of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis was re-programmed to combat malignant cells (Anderson, et. al, 2006). In an engineered bacterial cell, OR logic gates were synthesized which stimulated the production of the drug in the presence of some disease marker (Brophy&Voigt, 2014).

Thus, it is not difficult for a non-state actor to develop bio or binary weaponry and achieve his bellicose missions against other states.Whilst breakthrough advances in the realm of microbial biotechnology and comparative genomics, it is imperative to envisage proliferation and use of new biological weapons for war contingencies and terrorist events.

Pugnacious nationalist leaders and imperialistic war heads may persevere in seeking them for hegemonic motives. For such a risk, the US Centers for Disease Control has grouped over 30 potential bioterrorism agents (micro-organisms and toxins ) into three threat categories on the basis of lethality and transmissibility. First priority group includes agents like Bacillus anthracis, Ebola, Lassa, Clostridium botulinum toxin. The second list includes pathogens with less morbidity rate i-e Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, Brucella species, Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens, E.coli O157:H7, Salmonella species. Whereas, the list C focuses on the emerging pathogens which could be engineered for mass dissemination due to their availability, easy production and high mortality rates. It includes Nipah virus and hantavirus.

A group of scientists in the United States, JASON group, had categorized futuristic techniques that could design lethal genetically modified organisms. These included:· Binary biological weapons· Designer genes· Gene therapy as a weapon· Stealth viruses· Host-swapping diseases· Designer diseases Next generation bioweapons developed by integrating genetic engineering and computational biology is the weaponry par excellence.

Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, an infectious disease physician and the highest ranking detector of the Biopreparat program (Russia), published Biohazard, a detailed account of his experience. He disclosed that along with Soviet biologists, he had prepared Biopreparat’s first vaccine resistant tularemia bomblet as a bioweapon. His team had also boosted the potency of the anthrax strain 836 and called it the ‘battle strain’. Dr. Alibek confided that Russian scientists had improved many of these deadly strains to evade the immune system and existing treatments. In May 1998, Alibek testified before the U.S. Congress that in Soviet’s opinion, the best biological agents were those which had no antidote. And those agents for which vaccines or treatment existed, antibiotic-resistant or immunosuppressive resistant variants were designed.

In early 1990s, chimeras of VEE (Venezuelan equine encephalitis), Ebola, and Marburg genes inserted into smallpox virus were developed by Russian biologists. Chimeras are man-made viruses, engineered by injecting genes from one virus to another, to make even a virulent viral strain. In 1997, Russian scientists had published a research in a British journal Vaccine, in which they had transferred genome of the bacteria Bacillus cereus into Bacillus anthracis cultures, rendering the anthrax bacteria strain resistant to Russian anthrax vaccine.

Exponential discoveries in the biotechnology domain have rendered biological weapons exceptional in their invisibility, transmissability as well as potency. Engineering of these agents targets at creating encumbrance to military responses, crippling the socio-economic stability and pulverize the government on the global podium, leaving the healthcare system naked and dilapidated.

The UN won't help. The Geneva Protocol signed in 1925 has proved itself to be a ‘toothless’ treaty as it does not ensure any verification or compliance even after banning the bacteriological methods of warfare. However, amalgamation of microbial biotechnology with immuno-informatics can put forward significant countermeasures against these infectious war agents. These include elucidating on the human genome, boosting the human immune system, understanding of viral and bacterial genomes and how human body responds to an infection.

Rapid detection of the bio-agent by highly sensitive and advanced diagnostics can be done by latest technologies such as CRISPR SHERLOCK and DETECTR which may take even less than an hour. Researchers are also focusing on the commercialization of nano-theranostics and micro-chips for the fast and accurate detection of infectious agents. Also, there is a huge demand for development of new vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral drugs which is now a lot easier after the advent of techniques like reverse vaccinology and subtractive genomics.

In the view of great misfortune we face today in the form of pandemic, it is evident that the economic expansion has outperformed the ethical scientific development. US-China squabbling over the origin of virus has made COVID-19 a political football. All of the ‘politicking’, when infected humans are on ventilators, pummeled by poverty and grieved by the sickness have exposed cultural eams that were loosening long before eruption of the virus.

What is more worrisome about living in this ‘Biological Century’ is the intensity of threat one feels by the clandestine acts of bioterrorism. Keeping in mind the heightened capabilities of scientists to manipulate DNA segments, it raises the question of creation of such vaccine resistant strains which could mutate resulting in a specie for which no antidote could be developed in the future, putting forth dreadful consequences. This leaves us with some serious queries. Is the COVID-19 pandemic a start towards a new world order? Have humans really equipped themselves to fight bio-warfare? Will black biotechnology consider the bio-security challenges before the next global humanitarian crisis?

Winston Churchill had once lamented ’’Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not armies but whole districts- such are lines along which science is remorselessly advancing’’. There are those who say ‘The First World War was chemical; the Second War was nuclear, and that the Third World War - God forbid - will be biological. 


1. Ali, A. (2021). US-China Rivalry: Is A New Cold War Really Emerging? ANALYSIS.

2. Brophy, J. A. N.,&Voigt, C. A. (2014). Principles of genetic circuit design. Nat Methods, 11(5), 508–520.

3. CDC | Bioterrorism Agents/Diseases (by Category) | Emergency Preparedness&Response. (n.d.).

4. Garrett, L. (2001). The Nightmare of Bioterrorism, 80(1), 76.

5. Gronlund, K. (2018). Genome Editing And The Future Of Biowarfare: A Conversation With Dr. Piers Millett - Future Of Life Institute. Future Of Life Institute.

6. Guillemin, J. (2006). Biological Weapons. Columbia University Press.

7. Howard, A. (2020). Corona And Bioterrorism: How Serious Is The Threat? - War On The Rocks. War On The Rocks.

8. Hülseweh, B. (2013). Characteristics of Biological Warfare Agents - Diversity of Biology, 103–124.

9. Keyes, S. (2019). Chapter 2. What Is Voter Fraud?, 19–36.

10. Krishnan, A. (2021). Enforced Transparency: A Solution to Autonomous Weapons as Potentially Uncontrollable Weapons Similar to Bioweapons, 219–236.

11. Pero, R., Laneri, S., & Fico, G. (2018). Botulinum Toxin Adverse Events.

12. S, C. (2019). The New Killer Pathogens: Bioweapons. OAJMB, 4(2), 1–2

13. Suisheng, Z., & Guo, D. (2019). A New Cold War? Causes and Future of the Emerging US-China Rivalry. Vestn. Ross. univ. družby nar., Ser. Meždunar. otnoš., 19(1), 9–21.

14. Sun, Y., Yu, L., Liu, C., Ye, S., Chen, W., Li, D., & Huang, W. (2021). One-tube SARS-CoV-2 detection platform based on RT-RPA and CRISPR/Cas12a