You don’t need to be a geek to have heard about biological weapons. With their terrifying potential, The Foreign Affairs and Biology Society organised an online talk with Dr. James Revill, from the UN Institute of Disarmament Research. Titled “The Past, Present, and Future of Biological Weapons” it was a welcome break from theoretical essay dithering. Dr. James Revill provided expert insight on an unsettling, increasingly relevant topic pitched at an approachable level, that you didn’t need to be the next Einstein to appreciate. He defined them as microorganisms, made with the sole intention of causing harm, a succinct definition that appealed to my lack of scientific knowledge. Whilst we may be most familiar with WWII and the use of bio-weapons, with the biological armaments race between both Ally and Axis powers, they have been utilised multiple times before – and since – then. Although most of us will have heard of the biological armaments race being used during WWII between the Ally and Axis powers, bio-weapons were used even before then and have continued to be utilised.
Anthrax was stockpiled by the British military (though later destroyed), intended to be spread in German fields where, passing from livestock to human consumer, they would be capable of causing death on a wide scale. Humans were not allowed on the Scottish island it was tested on, until after 1990. However, Dr. Revill cautions a careful approach to learning about its history – he remarks that it’s a highly complex subject, where distinguishing between fact and fiction proves challenging. What increasingly became evident throughout the talk, is that the modes of power harnessed by bio-weaponry are not just down to the physical, tangible effects they can inflict. It was suggested they can be a powerful means of “vilifying enemies” which in turn can provoke mass hysteria such as when it was suggested Al-Qaeda was possibly capable of bioterrorism. The psychological effects are huge, manipulating and infiltrating the public psyche.
As a form of psychological warfare, its capabilities are immense – yet the physical aspect has equally terrifying potential. Dr. Revill notes biological advancements, which include the breakthrough in scientist’s ability to edit DNA, through Crispr Cas 9, could involve a kind of tailoring of weaponry – maybe even for particular ethnic groups, through exploiting specific DNA types a certain group possess. And whilst it can contribute to generating “considerable potential benefits to society”, including the environment and possible eradication of malaria, there tends to be a focus on their future role and inevitability of their devastation. It’s a relevant example of our self-destructive ways: scientific breakthroughs that produce more ways to harm us.
So is the future one of despondency? The answer appears to be not yet anyway according to Dr. Revill. The talk struck a slightly (very slightly) more cheerful note as he reminded us that the creation of bio-weaponry is anything but a straightforward process. Indeed, there’s a popular media spin that likes to suggest any destructive-minded individual can cobble together bio-weapons in their kitchen. Yet the scientific process is far more complicated and time-consuming, requiring a huge amount of organization and scientific knowledge, challenging the stereotype they can be put together like a Lego set. The talk was a great insight into a sadly relevant and unsettling topic. Providing an expert’s insight was a welcome relief from the drama-stirring stories in the media, and an approach that was an engaging, informative way to learn.