Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

The Bioterror Pipeline: Big Pharma, Patent Expirations, and New Challenges to Global Security

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

The Bioterror Pipeline: Big Pharma, Patent Expirations, and New Challenges to Global Security

Article excerpt

Thanks in large measure to the biotechnical revolution, the world today is a better place to inhabit than ever before. New biotechnologies have improved health standards, bolstered food production, and yielded tremendous benefits for global economic development.

Unfortunately, even as these advanced technologies are helping to improve the human condition, their inherent "dual-use" potential makes them equally attractive to those who seek to do harm. The same equipment used to produce a life-saving vaccine might also incubate a biological agent for terrorist use. Knowledge gained from conquering a deadly disease could be manipulated to fashion an even more dangerous "supergerm" capable of killing hundreds of thousands. Innovative new "fusion toxins" designed to target cancer cells could be redirected to attack healthy cells when introduced to a human host. And new work on controlling influenza could make it easier to recreate the 1918 Spanish flu virus for malevolent purposes.1

In short, these possibilities raise fears that readily available scientific techniques might be co-opted to create biological weapons. Increasingly, the fundamental challenge of the biotech revolution is to ensure that dual-use knowledge and technologies with a clearly legitimate use in the civilian economy are neither inhibited by overly invasive legal restrictions on their discovery, use, and dissemination, nor diverted for nefarious use as bioweapons. This tension has both necessitated and complicated global efforts to prevent bioproliferation-a situation destined to get far worse before it gets better.


On the morning of March 20, 1995, members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas in a coordinated attack on five trains in Tokyo's subway system. The attack killed twelve commuters and seriously injured fifty-four others.2 What is less known is that prior to its successful attack in Tokyo, the cult had repeatedly attempted to develop and use botulinum toxin and other agents as bioweapons. Fortunately, the group was never successful, likely due to "faulty microbiological technique, deficient aerosol-generating equipment, or internal sabotage."3 Aum's first attempt in April 1990 involved cult members spraying what they thought was botulinum toxin from three trucks that drove near important buildings throughout Japan.4 Three years later, the group used similar tactics to spray an ineffective toxin mixture around Prince Naruhito's wedding ceremony. The next year, police suspected that cult members had tried to retaliate against an attorney working on behalf of Aum's victims by pouring a toxin in his drink. And finally, only five days prior to the 1995 sarin attack, Aum members placed briefcases designed to disperse botulinum toxin in a Tokyo subway station. In addition to botulinum toxin, the group also attempted to harvest and experiment with two other dangerous pathogens: anthrax and Ebola.

Aum's efforts to harness the potentially devastating effects of weapons of mass destruction seemed to help open the door to a new era of catastrophic terrorist intent. Al-Qaeda's pursuit of a nuclear capability has been well-documented in the mainstream press. Not receiving as much attention, however, is the organization's aggressive quest for a biological weapons capability. Some even suggest that, based on open intelligence and the relative ease of access to dual-use biological pathogens and equipment, al-Qaeda may have advanced further in this field than in the nuclear realm.5 For instance, upon searching the evacuated terrorist camps after the invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. forces discovered al-Qaeda's 5,000-page "Encyclopaedia of Jihad," which included precise instructions for manufacturing biological weapons.6 Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, attempted to purchase a crop-dusting aircraft that could have been used for biological weapons dissemination. …

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