Monday, January 24, 2011

The "ethno-bomb"

It was on a past episode of Fringe.  I decided to check it out and see how much science fact was contained in the science fiction. Turns out quite a bit.

Could a killer virus or other such bioweapon be engineered that would only attack someone of a certain race?  It's not as fantastic as I once thought.  In 1997, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen called the notion of a genetic weapon "a plausible possibility."  He even expressed his belief that the former Soviet Union had done research into targeting specific human genes.  Advancements such as the Human Genome Project would only expedite the arrival of such a weapon.  The following year, numerous news sources, including Wired magazine, reported that Israel was in the process of or already had developed a biological agent that would solely target those of Arab decent.  The story was later exposed as a hoax, but the fact that anyone found it believable in the first place shows how credible the idea had become.  In 2009, The Journal of Medical Ethics published an article on the ethics involved in genetically-targeted warfare.  Not being a physician myself, I don't have access to it, but I can attempt to guess at the questions raised within the essay.  Many of them are probably variations on the familiar query of "If other nations are developing them, dare we get caught with our pants down?  Shouldn't we be developing the same?"

I'll take things one step further.  Such bioweapons need not be weapons of mass destruction.  If we're advancing upon (or already at) a time when specific ethnic divisions could be targeted, could a "smart bomb" of a biological agent be designed to lock on to an individual's DNA?  It would make a perfect tool for assassination.  It would also make the most sense for an enemy of America, say Muslim extremists.  I'm uncertain, but I can't think of anything that could be called distinctly "American" DNA since we are such a melting pot of races.  Therefore, it would seem that targeting individuals would be the way to go and not release en mass, if we're talking targeted biological agents, that is.  Wouldn't surprise me to know that Josef Mengele or someone else in the cabinet of Nazi monstrosities had already drawn up the plans for such weapons but could not advance upon them as the necessary understanding of DNA had yet to arrive.

Now that time may be here.
Here's an article on the subject.  It has this fun little tidbit to keep you up at night:

"One particularly troubling aspect of biowarfare is that the cost of funding a capable research program is much less than would be required to develop nuclear weapons.  It has been estimated that the cost of developing a "gene weapon" might be in the neighborhood of $50 million, which would be well within the capabilities of most national governments, and possibly extra-governmental groups such as Al-Qaeda as well.  Another troubling aspect of such technology is its potential for being used covertly, disguised as a particularly severe flu virus, for example."

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