COVID-19: 8 Takeaways From 2003 Unclassified CIA Bioweapons Report, ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future’

COVID-19: 8 Takeaways From 2003 Unclassified CIA Bioweapons Report, ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future’

COVID-19: Here are eight takeaways from the 2003 unclassified CIA bioweapons report, ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future.” An Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch (EDLB) public health scientist prepares foodborne bacteria for a DNA fingerprinting test. Photo by CDC on Unsplash

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government started funding a massive new biodefense research effort, spending up to $10 billion on projects related to biological weapons such as anthrax.

Officials said the effort was designed to head off what a 2003 CIA report called the “Darker Bioweapons Future.” 

It was described as a modern-day Manhattan Project—a spending spree that had the potential to change the face of biological science, Mother Jones reported.

Fast forward 17-or-so years. The Chinese government recently banned live animal sales at a wet market in Wuhan after the earliest coronavirus cases were linked to the sale of exotic and wild live animals sold there.

Theories of bioweapons abound when it comes to COVID-19, the virus that started in China, spread around the world, and crashed markets.

One of the popular coronavirus bioweapons theories is promoted by the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently tweeted sympathy to the people of China for the “#Corona lab-made virus”. The virus was created deliberately as a biological weapon by China’s enemies to halt the country’s progress, the ex-president said.

On Nov. 3, 2003, a two-page CIA report entitled “The Darker Bioweapons Future” was posted under the title “Unclassified” on the website for the Federation of American Scientists.

In the report, a panel of outside experts told the CIA that advances in biotechnology and genomic research could produce the worst known diseases and the “most frightening” biological weapons.

The experts had convened for the Strategic Assessments Group by the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization funded by the federal and state governments through contracts, grants, private foundations and industrial organizations. The panelists concluded that the difficulty in detecting nefarious biological activity has the potential to create a dangerous biological warfare threat.

The contents of the 2003 report resonate 16 years later, especially in the time of coronavirus. Amid the explosive global outbreak, U.S. President Donald Trump proposed almost 19-percent budget cuts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is the agency tasked with preparing for and responding to such outbreaks and other serious health threats.

In the age of COVID-19, here are eight takeaways from the 2003 unclassified CIA Bioweapons Report, “The Darker Bioweapons Future.”

Biotechnology knowledge is in an explosive growth phase

Panelists said knowledge will evolve so fast and be so complex and accessible to the public that traditional intelligence means for monitoring development of weapons of mass destruction could be inadequate to deal with the threat from advanced biological weapons.

Detecting novel bioengineered pathogens will require new relationships  

Detection of novel bioengineered pathogens will depend increasingly on more specific human intelligence. Panelists argued that this will require closer and qualitatively different working relationship between the intelligence and biological sciences communities. 

Novel bioengineered pathogens already exist  

Australian researchers inadvertently showed that the virulence of mousepox virus can be enhanced by incorporating a standard immunoregulator gene. This technique could be applied to other naturally occurring pathogens such as anthrax or smallpox, increasing their lethality. Other classes of unconventional pathogens could include binary bioweapons agents that only become effective when two components are combined. For example, a mild pathogen combined with its antidote could become virulent. Some bioweapons could be created antibiotic-resistant or evade an immune response. Weaponized gene therapy could effect permanent change in the victim’s genetic makeup. A stealth virus could lie dormant inside a whole class of victims for an extended period before being triggered.

Response time and defense of new threats could be slow  

The diversity of new bioweapons agents could enable such a broad range of attack scenarios that it would be virtually impossible to anticipate and defend against, panelists said. As a result,there could be a considerable lag time in developing effective biodefense measures.    

Once developed, countermeasures could be used against a range of attacks

Effective countermeasures could be leveraged against a range of bioweapons agents, panelists said. They cited research aimed at developing protocols for augmenting common elements of the body’s response to disease, rather than treating individual diseases. Such treatments could strengthen our defense against attacks by advanced biological warfare agents.

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It’s difficult to distinguish between ‘legitimate bio research’ and advanced biowarfare agents 

Detecting advanced bioweapons is not like detecting nuclear weapons, panelists said. Nuclear weapons have clear surveillance and detection observables such as enriched uranium or telltale production equipment.
Most panelists argued that a qualitatively different relationship between the government and life sciences communities might be needed to most effectively deal with the bioweapons threat. 

Most bioscience knowledge is publicly available online and hard to track

The volume of the evolving bioscience knowledge base, the fact that most of it is publicly available online and very hard to track are driving forces for enhanced cooperation. Most panelists agreed that the U.S. life sciences research community was more or less over its Vietnam-era distrust of the national security establishment and would be open to more collaboration.

Life sciences community could be an informant for the government

The panelists proposed government assistance to the life sciences community so it could develop its own standards and norms intended to differentiate between “legitimate” and illegitimate research. One panelist proposed that the bioscience community at large aid the government by acting as a “living sensor web” at international conferences, in university labs, and through informal networks to identify and alert it to new technical advances with weaponization potential.

link to our article on former Iran president