INCLUDED IN THIS MONTH’S BULLETIN:
BIOHACKING: ENGINEERING FUTURE BIOWEAPONS
Recent developments in the area of gene-editing have increased access to the knowledge, material and equipment needed to synthetically engineer DNA. Whilst these advancements have been used to benefit scientific progress, particularly in medicine and agriculture, there is growing concern that the same process could be applied by malicious actors to create synthetic bioweapons. An experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta, used gene-editing methods to reconstruct the horsepox virus (a relative of the deadly smallpox virus). The subsequent journal article published by the team included an in-depth description of the methods used and tips for bypassing roadblocks in production. Such information, which is publicly accessible, alongside the availability of ‘do-it-yourself’ gene-editing kits online and a weak regulatory environment has presented security services with increased concerns about the threat from biohackers producing synthetically-produced biological agents and weaponising them.
FENTANYL AS A WMD?
In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it was considering classifying the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, as a WMD following a surge in overdose-related deaths. Fentanyl’s widespread availability on the black market and lethality are a major source of concern for government officials. Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are considered to make the substance an attractive option to threat actors seeking nonconventional materials for a chemical weapon attack. The drug has been described as “disturbingly easy” to weaponise by Andy Weber, former US assistant secretary of defence for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defence Programmes. The drug, if weaponised, could be disseminated through air and water and potentially cause considerable damage.