By Mr. Frank Rando, CBRNE – Protective & Biomedical Countermeasures SME, University of Arizona and Ms. Dee Ruelas, US Customs and Border Protection
Part I: Implications of Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology
Amidst the speculation and controversy regarding the origins of the SARS -CoV -2 virus, Covid-19 illness and the global tragedy that has ensued, rises the distinct possibility that a sweeping and deadly pandemic was ignited by biotechnology and tampering with the fundamental properties of an already deadly virus.
The enhancement of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, cultivated from bats and subjected to “ gain of function” research, may have been responsible for the most lethal pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza event which was able to circumnavigate the globe and kill an estimated 40 million people in less than one year.
The field of synthetic biology had its beginnings near the turn of the millennium, where it was thought that the basic principles of engineering could be applied to biological systems at the cellular and genetic levels. Biotechnology and synthetic biology have created products that are most beneficial to humankind such as targeted medical therapies, vaccines, improved and disease resistant crops and biofuels.
While the intention has been to benefit humankind, the reality is that biotechnology and the evolving field of synthetic biology have the real potential of creating a new generation of advanced biological weapons (ABWs), not to mention the dangers posed by the accidental release of genetically engineered microorganisms, totally novel or reconstructed pathogens.
Synthetic pathogens are man-made infectious agents that are produced either from the manufacture or adaptation of DNA, cells and other biological structures . In the last decade, American scientists have been able to recreate the 1918 “ Spanish Flu” virus and more recently, Australian and St. Louis scientists have been able to reconstruct the mousepox virus.
With the advent of techniques like CRISPR gene editing and DNA synthesis ,the field of synthetic biology could lead to recreating known pathogenic viruses, making biochemicals via in situ synthesis, enhancing the pathogenicity and transmissibility of existing bacteria and viruses, and modifying the human immune system among other possibilities.
For example, the discovery that the former Soviet Union had one of the largest bioweapons research and development programs operating under the guise of a large pharmaceutical enterprise, known as Biopreperat, an active research program known as Foilant, was allegedly able to design and create hybrid or chimeric organisms and performing gene insertion into bacteria such as Francisella tularensis, the causative organism of the infectious disease, tularemia .
This fruits of this research would also yield the ability to generate peptides capable of expressing and modulating a variety of biochemical and physiological effects. Biological response modifiers (BRMs) can be used as biochemical weapons to elicit debilitating and deadly physiological effects. BRMs include cytokines such as colony stimulating factors, erythropoietin, Interferons, interleukins, stem cell growth factors, monoclonal antibodies, tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, and vaccines. Peptides such as catecholamines and neurotransmitters can also be used as biochemical weapons to produce potent physiological effects, such as surges in blood pressure and neurophysiological derangements.
The proliferation of novel pathogens created by biotechnological/ synthetic biological techniques can be made “ to order” to elicit a variety of deleterious effects, e.g., such as targeting specific ethnic or racial groups to carry out an ethnic or racial cleansing campaign or impacting plant and animals to decimate agricultural production . South Africa had a robust bioweapons research and development program which included research into race-specific genetic bioweapons.
The impact of biotechnological advances on future biological weapons ( BWs) can be summarized in three principal phases: •Enhanced countermeasures may become available against existing “ traditional “ BW agents. •The enhancement of “ traditional” BW agents into more environmentally stable entities, or possessing characteristics such as, heightened transmissibility and increased virulence /lethality. •On -going advances achieved in biotechnology and synthetic biology R & D may lead to design and bioengineering of a large armamentarium of advanced biological weapons ( ABWs) agents.
It is this ultimate possibility of creating ABWs that is particularly worrisome and frightening, even to the most combat hardened military commander or experienced emergency management professional. ABWs could be configured to confer harmful genes to target organisms, including humans, and/or consist of designer diseases, where a custom designed pathogen has been biochemically engineered from scratch.
Bioengineered and synthetic bioweapons deployed and disseminated in a covert attack could be designed to elude even the most sophisticated bio-detection technologies, evade the immune responses, resist and endure environmental extremes, render available medical countermeasures totally ineffective, have delayed activation and effects, and defy personal protective countermeasures . Combine these nightmarish possibilities with microencapsulation techniques and nanotechnology and a perfect biological storm can be unleashed on totally unprepared and defenseless populations.
Pertaining to nuclear weapons, Albert Einstein stated “ Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth .”
Perhaps, we should heed his foreboding Atomic Age prediction and warning and apply it to the brave new world of biological manipulation.
Part II: From Order to Chaos: Have Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology Disrupted Our Safety, Security and Peace of Mind?
The big picture in today’s world has suddenly become bigger. And smaller. We are contending with attitudes, perceptions and practices in biology and bioengineering that once were the things that B grade science fiction movies were made of. In the vast reaches of scientific research, doctors and scientists across the globe have continued to find ways to improve our quality of life as well as prolong it many years beyond what our grandparents and great grandparents once thought possible. We have discovered the ways and means to attack cancer cells and preserve the surrounding healthy tissue. The trauma of wars and accidents that have robbed so many of limbs in whole or part, has been overcome by artificial limbs that are so advanced in some cases that the individual has some restoration of their sense of touch and ability to resume normal function. New vaccines to old diseases as well as for those newly discovered are in the research and development phase daily and the advent of nanotechnology and its capabilities is both awe-inspiring and frightening. There have always been men and women of great passion desirous of helping to maintain our order in life. Where the ravages of chaos from disease and disaster have burst, uninvited into the civility of our daily lives, someone always wants to fix it. We have always called it good and heroic. These advances made us healthier, cured or curbed disease processes, and provide much longed-for aid and comfort in our lives. We have explored and discovered so much. We have taken the double helix of our DNA and effectively unraveled it to discover more about our makeup and to develop new ways to treat disease and combat viral and bacterial invaders. Have we gone too far?
The advent of synthetic biology and using so called designer organisms has allowed for the creation of new ways of scientific testing and for new treatments which are wonderful. It has also initially ushered in a terrifying vehicle for weapons of mass destruction. Quite frankly, what is used to kill is used to heal and vice versa.
We have seen over the past eighteen months or more now, the results of what appears to have been the release of a synthetically modified virus from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan, China. This release may have been accidental. It may have been due to carelessness on the part of a technician. We do not have all the facts. Great care must be taken no matter where we are when working on such things to avoid just such situations. The mantra for those of us in the medical and CBRN communities is always Safety! Safety! Safety! More specifically, biosafety!
Regardless of the reason for this incident, it has resulted in a global event that has touched, I dare say, everyone who has heard about it. Not everyone has become ill, but the psychological, social, spiritual, financial and political damage that has been wreaked on so many nations of the world is beyond the imagination for most of us. There is a spirit fear that grips much of the world today. You see it plainly in the eyes of children, their parents, shopkeepers, the reactions of local and national leaders as well as global leaders. I cannot even begin to address the unspeakable loss of life. Peace it seems, has left so many and chaos has reared its ugly head. It does not appear there is someone who can fix this, but who knows, that may be just around the corner. In the meantime, we need to find that place of resiliency in our communities, for it is there. Common sense, reason and respect must take over once again and we can begin the mitigation process and work our way to recovery. There is so much confusing and contradictory information being disseminated from so many different sources that I believe the community will have to, of necessity, find its own way back to normalcy and civility. We need to return to who we are and always have been. Not what this virus has made us.
We need to increase the security of our military and civilian laboratories as well as increase the safety of these facilities. Personnel need to be extremely well trained in all safety measures at all levels for handling these materials. This includes proper donning and doffing of PPE, cleaning equipment and work areas, securing equipment when not in use and securing the area when finished. Local and National rules and regulations need to be closely adhered to (i.e., OSHA and the likes) in order for a safe and secure workplace to exist.
What we do with technology and how we weaponize it is something we must all reconsider very carefully. This devil has two faces, to heal and to kill. We must treat it with great respect or it will destroy us all for it is no respecter of persons and recognizes no master but itself. One mistake, one careless misstep or arrogant thought can be the greatest conflagration to consume humankind that we never thought could happen.
About the Authors
Frank Rando currently serves as an allied health programs educator/lead instructor and healthcare emergency preparedness/medical readiness/public health preparedness and tactical, operational – disaster medicine and homeland security Subject Matter Expert, educator, instructor and curriculum designer. He has served in instructional, guest speaker and consultative roles for DHS-FEMA, various components of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, DoD, industry, academia, health, safety and regulatory entities, emergency services organizations and healthcare. He recently served during the COVID-19 public health emergency as a clinician and clinical researcher and also served in medical and health care support as a clinician for US Customs and Border Protection. Frank is also an experienced clinician, first responder and an occupational – environmental health scientist with real world experience in hazardous materials management, hazards and pollution control, biosafety, industrial, environmental and inhalation toxicology, environmental epidemiology, exposure and risk assessment and emergency response. Frank has also received advanced training in Integrated Biological -Chemical Response from the US Army -Dugway West Desert Test Center and the National Ebola and Special Pathogens Training Centers. Frank’s experience includes public safety roles in law enforcement, pre-hospital medicine/EMS and military duty as a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical/CBRN Specialist, NBC medical defense instructor Special Forces Medical Sergeant, Dive Medical Technician, Intelligence Sergeant and Medical Intelligence Analyst.
Dee Ruelas possesses over 35 years of dedicated professional experience in various roles in public safety/emergency services, teaching and instruction, healthcare, environmental health and safety, emergency preparedness, community resiliency and Christian ministry. Dee was also a decorated public safety-emergency medical communications specialist for the City of Tucson Fire Department and worked for the Tucson Municipal Court, where one of her roles was serving as the Fire Prevention and General Safety Officer for the municipal courts system. Currently, Dee has been serving as a clinical specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services and served as a medical and healthcare support specialist for US Customs and Border Protection. Dee is the former Director of the City of Tucson Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and is a DHS-Certified CERT Instructor, National Association of Emergency Medical Technician Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) Instructor and a Certified Stop the Bleed Instructor. Dee is also trained and serves as an experienced instructor and consultant in hazardous materials, incident command, explosives recognition, medical decontamination, active shooter countermeasures, emerging infectious diseases, mental health first aid, refugee medicine and general health and safety, including roles as a subject matter expert, guest speaker, and instructor for the State of Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. She has also been trained by the National Ebola Training Center and the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Dee also is the owner and senior proprietor for Teach 2 Prepare, a consultancy and training entity.