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Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of public and academic interest in military science, triggered, in part, by the emergence and perception of new security threats resulting from radical innovations in the life sciences, concerns about biosecurity or the role and limits of science in society, yet our understanding about internal modes of operation and research governance in classified research facilities has been limited at best. Most users should sign in with their email address. If you originally registered with a username please use that to sign in.

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Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Some equipment is available that incorporates cutting-edge technologies for various purposes. Environmental sensors are sensors that discriminate between disease causing agents pathogens and the thousands of smaller but harmless micro-organisms that colonise our air, water, and soil. Some sensors use an innovative type of device that detects pathogens based on their unique surface molecules. Such sensors are useful for discerning more than one type of a pathogen.

In addition to such types of systems, which are essentially point detection systems, current research is also aimed at producing standoff detection systems. Such systems could monitor clouds of biological agents from some distance. The aim behind the development of such systems is to observe an area with a 1-to kilometre radius standoff distance. Also, considerable effort is being made on the development of passive optical and laser technologies to carry out standoff remote detection.

Today, unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs offer a great opportunity to safely deploy such technology to achieve a longer-range warning. In spite of these developments, scientists are still working overtime to remove the shortcomings. The whole bio-weapon detection process itself takes time; current detectors take up to 30 minutes to take a reading. There is a need to reduce the time taken to deliver precise identification and also to reduce the size of the equipment.

The goal should be agent identification as close to real time as possible with equipment that is reliable, with a low logistics burden, and which can be operated with the minimum of training. Ideally, it should be hand-held. Existing and futuristic biosensors are expected to work in ambient environments and to provide early warning or confirmation of a biological attack.

Advanced diagnostics are needed to confirm infection in targeted populations before symptoms start showing, and this is where biosensors are going to play a major role. Nanotechnology is fast emerging as a new frontier in bio defense.

How to Protect the World from Bioweapons in the post-CRISPR Era

This technology has diverse applications in various disciplines. Currently, nanotechnology is being used to develop and manufacture various bio defense technologies. It is also becoming increasingly relevant in the field of medicine. However, the technology is still in its infancy, and some of its uses projected today are more prediction than reality.

Many believe that nanotechnology will revolutionise the entire field of medicine, from pharmaceuticals to surgery, and naturally this will have a major impact on bio defense. At present, nanotechnology is primarily used for the development of biosensors. Lately, a sensing device for detecting nerve gas agents in the atmosphere has been developed based on nanotechnology applications.

Technology capable of having a single-cell microchip platform as a toxicity sensor is already available. With this technology, molecular targets can be inserted into the cell, or the cell can simply be exposed to the environment while it monitors continuously for cell death. The readout is direct and virtually instantaneous. This platform will be leveraged in pharmaceutical and bio warfare applications.

Many cells in which numerous life activities and the interaction of protein surfaces take place are measured in nanometers. A few countries are working on extremely small machines and tools that can enter the human body. This is the millionth-of-a-millimetre world of biotechnology today. In tissue engineering, a scaffold measuring only 50 nanometers in diametre can be built using nano-fibers.

These are the secrets of life, and they are unfolding at the nano-level. The costs of developing drugs and viruses can be reduced by using nano-chips to test various medications or a combination of chemicals and vaccines. It is expected that this technology would also be used in future for developing surveillance tools. Scientific solutions in the field of bio defense have two types of costs. First, these solutions themselves could help the proliferation of biological weapons or make a terrorist aware of the benefits that the modern technology can provide for successfully launching a biological attack.

Second, huge financial investments are required for research, development, and production of bio-defence technologies. Hence, any hasty and ad hoc investment in the field of bio defense could prove damaging. For a low probability threat like bioterrorism, there is a need to invest in scientific solutions that are based on realistic risk and threat assessments. Such assessments are essential, because no nation-state wishes to invest in resources that are based on solely on perceived threats; states always like to invest in resources that are relevant and necessary. But at the same time, they always have to remain prepared to fight a worst-case scenario.

Any cost-benefit analysis of investments in scientific solutions for bio-defence should be done with this in mind. Cost-benefit analysis CBA entails rational decision-making. People use CBA every day, and it is older than written history. Yet although our natural grasp of costs and benefits is sometimes inadequate, when the various options under discussion are complex or the data are uncertain, we need formal techniques to keep our thinking clear, systematic, and rational. CBA of bio-defence solutions necessitates an assessment that attempts to integrate the physical and economic aspects, not one that merely judges things by their monetary value.

Rather, potential investors need to thoroughly and consistently evaluate the pros and cons of new scientific approaches. Mostly, CBAs are expressed in monetary terms, but in the case of biodefense, the issues go well beyond simple financial considerations. Effective policy-making that can handle the challenges of bioterrorism requires an assessment of the countervailing dangers introduced by remedies initially intended to decrease a specific risk the risk that the policy aims to reduce , even when that risk is partially dreaded, and when both the potential target and the countervailing risks are difficult to quantify.

Therefore, standard theories for evaluating risk are not generally found useful for assessing risks of virtually unlimited cost and finite probability.

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Under these circumstances, CBA becomes extremely tricky. But the process of CBA is even more complex, because the choice of variables assessed changes substantially when fear is factored into a technical assessment. A key question for decision makers is whether policy responses should be based in part on the perception of peril, including feelings of fear, or on a calculation that considers every potential casualty to be equal — whatever the emotional and symbolic content of a threat might be.

Certain hazards evoke particular dread, which can lead to an overestimation of the risk or to reactive policies whose costs may exceed their benefits. Furthermore, with bio-defence and bioterrorism, the uncertainty is tremendous. The risk, the extent of an attack, and the diagnosis, treatment, and prophylaxis of disease is highly uncertain, leaving decision-makers with little solid ground on which to base their decisions. Sometimes, cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness balancing approaches include little or no consideration of the individual, 43 and in the case of biodefense, such approaches are based on the argument that individual interests are to be subordinated to not only a cost benefit in the traditional sense of public health, but also to a national security interest.

Further, because biological agents can be used randomly across many communities, or even more extensively, in the case of aerosol dispersion, predictions of the rates of infection are most uncertain, leading to a need for countermeasures that have very broad safety margins. Another problem unique to bioterrorism is the fact that biological agents that pose no natural public health risk could be weapons of choice for bioterrorists, and this creates a high cost with benefits accruing only in the event of a biological attack with that agent, which scenario is widely known to pose only a small risk.

The consequences of an attack, however, could be catastrophic. Technological progress inevitably has its victims. It is difficult to think of a single invention in history, no matter how beneficial to society that has not made somebody worse off. Most of the new scientific developments are helping immensely towards the design and development of new biodefense techniques, while at the same time the same technological revolution is simplifying the procedures for making and modifying bio weapons. In general, all modern and emerging technologies should be viewed in context of their significance to the development of biodefense technologies and also in context of the likely implications for the development of bio weapons.


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Current research in biotechnology parallels earlier research of the s and s in the nuclear field. The knowledge base developed for nuclear technology was applicable to both military and industrial purposes. There is a need for better oversight of genetic engineering, because certain experiments involving the cutting and splicing of genetic material could have dramatic and unexpected consequences and relevance for biological weapons. However, it is not genetic manipulation in isolation that creates potential and unexpected risks; rather, the combination of a better understanding of life at the molecular level with other scientific advances, including nanotechnology, materials science, and bioinformatics, poses an even greater risk.

Biotechnology has the potential to improve biological warfare and biodefense capabilities through improvements to products and processes. Product improvements may involve the genetic modification of pathogens and the creation of new agents, as well as the development of new equipment for analysis and production. Process improvements influence the ways in which agents are manufactured. Many of these products and processes are being researched and developed for civilian applications in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture, as well as for purposes that are legitimate under the BTWC, such as defence, detection, protection and prophylaxis.

However, the investigation of these products and processes also generates considerable knowledge about the potential offensive use of certain substances, which could interfere with the biological processes in humans, animals, and plants. In certain cases, the offensive properties of known or potential biological warfare agents are being actively investigated in order to develop adequate defensive technologies and procedures. Technological advancements used directly or indirectly for developing bio-defence expertise also permit the production of new agents capable of use as bio weapons.

Recombinant DNA and other genetic engineering technologies are making biological warfare an effective military option. A further dimension to the advancement of life sciences and technology that will have important implications for the evolution of the biological weapons threat is the growing global dissemination of such advancements. Indeed, the way in which science and technology is developed, produced, and disseminated on a global basis has changed significantly in the years since the BTWC entered into force in Much of the material being produced is for dual use; the private sector is responsible for most of the advances; and knowledge and capability will become increasingly dispersed around the world, as biology and biotechnology are applied to more and more aspects of life.

Information technology and sensor technology used for bio-defence purposes could, in a way, be called clean technologies, because they do not contribute much towards the production of new agents. However, these technologies contribute indirectly by enhancing the possibility of the manufacture of bio weapons by state or non-state actors.

A state actor may create a few specific bio weapons for testing its sensors. Such weapons and knowledge increase the danger of further proliferation. Also, the technological know-how for designing a bio weapon is easily available on the internet, and non-state actors can easily make use of it. Detection technologies like sensor technologies have their own limitations.

Research into the development of technologies for detecting biological material in the natural environment is ongoing. While several technologies show promise as broadband detectors, there is no magic gadget that detects all biological materials at the requisite levels of sensitivity and specificity. Also, the process of developing agent-specific sensors is seriously limited. Terrorists can always hoodwink the sensors by designing new germs, and, therefore, the defensive measures will always lag behind the offensive measures. Nanotechnology raises many ethical questions about the medical advances that it will spur.

Defense experts are worried that even scientific papers published in medical journals may cause important technical information to fall into the wrong hands. Apart from these major technologies, a few other technologies used for biodefense purposes can be applied to the field of bio warfare. UAVs, which are used for bio-agent reconnaissance, could also be used in bio offensive ways by terrorists.

These aircraft could be used by terrorists to drop biological bombs or spray biological agents like Anthrax. In India, the Defence Research and Development Establishment DRDE at Gwalior is the primary establishment for studies in toxicology and biochemical pharmacology and development of antibodies against several bacterial and viral agents. In a way, India is capable of responding effectively to threats like anthrax, brucellosis, cholera and plague, viral threats like smallpox and fever and biotoxic threats like botulism.


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Also biological protective gear like masks, suits, etc. The national institute of communicable diseases advises the Government of India on issues related to prevention and control of communicable diseases in the country.

The New Killer Pathogens

India has made significant progress in bio-technology but needs to integrate its entire apparatus of bio defence by using specially designed information technology tools. Also in the arena of sensor technology there is a need to invest more. As explained above currently this technology is available with few Western countries.

India needs to collaborate with them. There is a necessity to modify this technology based on country-specific requirements. The research and development in the area of nanotechnology is currently at very nascent stage in India. Further developments in this field need to have an additional focus on bio-defence technologies.

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Bioattacks do not create conventional disaster scenarios. Disaster management under such circumstances is extremely complicated. Many government and non-government organizations need to work in sync in such a situation. Such attacks require multiple levels of intervention. Modern technology opens up a vast array of options for tackling these attacks effectively. However, modern technology also opens the gates to the easy creation of bio weapons. It is not possible to stop the growth and reach of modern technologies that are capable of creating a revolution in both the offensive and defensive fields of bio weapons.

Therefore, states will have to act shrewdly and need to evaluate their investments in this area carefully. The new scientific approaches also bring about many risks to a world that is already deeply troubled. Will these new approaches to biodefense reduce the threats or increase them further?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. Bio-defence technology is here to stay, in spite of the fact that it is a double-edged sword. The technology has the potential to produce both astonishing medical advances and dreadful bio weapons. Many modern bio-defence techniques demand huge investments. States find it difficult to decide on the level of their investments in such technologies, because the nature of the threat itself is unclear.

Also, technological advancements are making preventive measures more dangerous. This could force states to think differently. Even if states decide to invest less in bio-defence technologies, the problem of germ weaponisation will remain. Currently, the field of biotechnology is growing very rapidly and has immense business potential.

This gives rogue states or non-state actors more opportunities to buy or produce bioweapons easily. Access to dangerous pathogens is going to become much easier in the near future. Interested parties may be in a position to use dual-use research facilities. Hence, curbing new scientific approaches in biological defence may not help to stop the proliferation of bioweapons.

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In fact, halting scientific development is likely to have an adverse impact, as it would lead to the non-availability of deterrents. It would be prudent if states were to carry out balanced threat assessments for deciding on cost-effective investments in the field bio-defence. Also, the relevance of bio-defence techniques should not be looked at only from the point of view of bio warfare and bioterrorism. Presently, the global community is facing a daunting task to tackle emerging and reemerging diseases. The SARS epidemic is a good case to illustrate the efficacy of dual-use technology and its benefits to public health programmes.

Bio-defence techniques have a much bigger role to play in society than merely that related to bioterrorism. The BTWC signatory countries should identify ways to ensure that the global diffusion of science and technology does not result in a more serious biological weapons threat. Also, as science and technology continue to advance, and as global technology diffusion proceeds, export controls will become increasingly difficult to manage export controls continue to make a contribution to halting the spread of bioweapons and related technology. But the fact that such controls only buy time so that other tools of policy can work raises the question of how much time and effort should be put into preserving these controls.

Skip to main content. Technical Aspects of Bio-Defence. Ajey Lele Retd. Click here for detailed profile. More from the author. Share Tweet Email Whatsapp Linkedin. Ajey Lele. October Strategic Affairs. Introduction History suggests that when nations do not have an offensive plan for a particular weapon, they undervalue the likelihood that others will use that weapon, and they even dismiss instances of use as accidents or irrelevant events.

New Scientific Approaches in Bio-Defence Defences against any probable bio attack constitute a set of measures designed to maintain the operational effectiveness of armed forces and the well-being of the masses.