Biotechnology too has polarities or dichotomies in terms of its applications. Since every scientific tool has a dark side, biotechnology is not an exception. The dark side of biotechnology in its color code is denoted as dark biotechnology and involves the areas of bioterrorism, biowarfare, biocrimes, and anticrop warfare. In a sense, the dark biotechnology is pretty much about the negative aspect of biological science and tools. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a bioterrorism attack as “the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants”.
Biological warfares have been practiced in the world since antiquity. In the past, biological weapons were used in the rudimentary forms available then such as poisoning water wells with pathogenic microorganisms, spreading epidemic diseases like smallpox or the use of infectious agents or toxin weapons like anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, botulism, Q-fever, and others. Dark biotechnology also includes destroying enemy agriculture such as crops, livestock, water-based vegetation, and fisheries.
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Bioterrorism and Bioweapons
Bioterrorism is all about the deliberate use of biological agents, microorganisms, pathogens, and toxins by releasing or disseminating to cause harm in the form of illness or death to humans, crops, livestock, animals or the natural environment. The biological agents used for the purpose might be in their naturally occurring form or can be modified to enhance their performance to cause diseases and spread to the environment or to make them resistant to antidotes.
Biological weapons can be an effective tool for terrorists to cause terror not just because of the inexpensive means to produce and use them, but also the way it can be used to cause widespread fear and panic to the society. Apart from these, biological weapons are relatively easy to produce by modern biological tools of genetic engineering, cloning, and molecular biology applications. With the potential of mass destruction, biological weapons can provide great power to anyone, individual, society or an entire nation. It can be a great weapon to the terrorists with the power to cause bioterrorism. Thus, the field of bioterrorism and bioweapons is one of the largest ethical concerns and has led to various conventions and treaties abiding the international arena.
Categories of Biological Agents
Also known as ‘biological select agents’ or simply ‘select agents’, the bio-agents are classified into three categories based on the rate of mortality caused, and the degree of transmission and dissemination.
These agents are highest priority pathogens, organisms or biological agents that possess the highest risk to society and public health since they can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person. Category A select agents results in the highest mortality and might cause public panic and social disruption. Examples of category A agents are anthrax, smallpox and other related pox viruses, rabbit fever, bubonic plague, Botulinum toxin and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola virus disease, dengue, etc.
Category B agents are the second highest priority biological agents. They cause moderate morbidity and low mortality and are moderately easy to disseminate. Such agents include Brucella species, Coxiella burnetii, Ricin toxin, Epsilon toxin, Staphylococcus enterotoxin B, typhus fever, food and waterborne pathogens such as diarrheagenic E. coli, pathogenic vibrios, Shigella species, Salmonella, Listeria, Hepatitis A virus, protozoan, microsporidia and mosquito-borne viruses such as West Nile virus, Yellow fever virus, Zika virus, etc.
These are the third highest priority pathogens and toxins that include emerging agents that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of their ease of production and transmission. Thus, they could be potentially morbid and can cause increased mortality and impact society and public health. Class C priority pathogens include Nipah and Hendra viruses, tickborne hemorrhagic fever viruses, hantaviruses, influenza virus, tuberculosis, drug-resistant TB, rabies virus, prions, SARS, HBV, HCV, Herpes simplex virus, etc.
How are Biological Agents Transmitted?
Biological agents can be transmitted through one more mode of transmission that may be parenteral—through body fluids or blood, airborne, through contact or oral-fecal route or sexual contact.
The thing that makes biotechnology dark is the intentional use and dissemination of harmful microorganisms, pathogens or toxins to cause disruption of humans, crops and livestock. Regardless of the great advantages that biotechnology has delivered, it has also provided with tools to destroy lives and the environment. Though ethical issues have led to the control and monitoring of production and use of biological and biochemical weapons, biological warfare and bioterrorism are not fully under control. Therefore, it is very essential to develop methods of immediate identification to detect a biological attack and also in the event of unintentional bio-agents releases.