November 21, 2018
By W. T. Whitney*
The United States has great tolerance for wholesale killings. Think Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Think civilians killed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – in U.S. wars. Think biological weapons.
An article appearing October 4, 2018 in Science magazine deals with a U.S. Defense Department project named “Insect Allies” which began in 2017 and runs for four years. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)is providingfour U.S. Universities with $45 million in funding to enable researchers to alter the gene make-up of plants grown as crops on farms. DARPA claims to be “addressing national security challenges in agriculture domestically and abroad.” Genes are being “edited”, says DARPA, so that plants can resist diseases, drought, floods, excessive heat, or “natural or engineered harmful biological agents,”
Yet the five authors of the report, evolutionary biologists and lawyers at German and French Universities, see the U.S. Defense Department as probably developing offensive biological-warfare capabilities. The United States, they explain, actually may be working on an innovative mechanism of genetic modification programmed to reduce productivity rather than to maintain or increase it.
The authors write that the “knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies.” They condemn the project “as probably in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which tookeffect under United Nations auspices in 1975.
The 182 nations ratifying the BWC as of 2018 are committed to prohibiting the “development, production, and stockpiling” of such weapons. In 1969 President Richard Nixon announced that the United States would no longer be making offensive biological weapons.
The Science magazine report focuses on a new delivery system Defense Department researchers are using to transfer altered genetic material to crops in the field. The authors cite the BWC which says: “certain developments in science and technology have the potential for use contrary to the provisions of the Convention now or in the future. These developments include, inter alia…to develop novel means of delivering biological agents and toxins.” The idea of a “novel means” is crucial to what follows here.
For the reader to understand why the United States may be non-compliant with the BWC, some familiarity with relevant science is necessary. We review it briefly.
DARPA researchers are trying to insert altered genetic material into viruses, arrange for those viruses to infect certain insects, and then transfer the insects with doctored viruses to plants being grown for food. They are relying on a horizontal – or lateral – approach instead of the traditional one, which is to transfer the inheritance of genetic material vertically, from one generation of living things downward to the next. Whether taking place in the laboratory or in the field, the vertical method consumes time and money. The new, horizontal method is relatively inexpensive and is quick. It fits into one growing season.
DARPA’sprocess rests on two biological systems. One of them, known by the acronym CRISPR, utilizes sets of DNA sequences originating fromthe genetic material of single cell organisms. These are composed of DNA fragments from viruses that had infected those organisms. Under CRISPR, the sequences are combined with certain enzymes to achieve “editing” of the genetic make-up of an entirely different organism. And CRISPR enables those altered genes to be transferred to yet another life form.
The other system involves a virus known as a “horizontal environmental genetic alteration agent” (HEGAA). It contains genes modified as per CRISPR. That virus infects insects, specifically aphids, whiteflies or leafhoppers, and the insects are transferred to crops where they feed. Doing so, they insert the virus into the cells of plants, thus endowing them – CRISPR at work again – with new genetic material. The plants thrive or fail depending on how humans engineered such material at the beginning.
In the Science magazine report, HEGAA technology is cast as one of the “novel means” proscribed by the BMW. The authors hold that gene modification achieved through HEGAA doesn’t fit with the intention proclaimed by DARPA, that of protecting U.S. agriculture. Any discussion of a project with such a purpose ought to have dealt with methods and arrangements pertaining to agriculture.
If indeed the Insect Allies program had been programmed as advertised, then consideration might have been given to regulatory mechanisms applying to food produced through HEGAA and about to enter national and international markets. That didn’t happen. Nor was there discussion of the full range of practical impediments to achieving benefits for agriculture.
There is silence also on the likelihood that HEGAA gene modification will lead to inconsistent results. The insects, for example, won’t reach all plants in a field and the outcome will be “quite different” from situations involving “laboratory-generated genetic modifications.” Gene modification via insects will likely affect crops other than the targeted ones. HEGAA technology also could end up reducing or finishing off seed production and leave no seeds to be marketed. Seeds necessary for perpetuation of plant species might disappear. DARPA researchers discussed none of this.
The article points out that for normal plantings – even of crops that are threatened – the delivery of viruses by insects would work less well than delivery of viruses by overhead spraying equipment. Lastly, the authors, having noted that the researchers are allowing the virus-laden insects to survive for only two weeks, suggest that through simple modifications the insects’ lives could be prolonged for use in war.
These discrepancies, the authors say, signal the intentions of DARPA and the researchers and they are not about problems of maintaining or increasing agricultural production. The implication is that DARPA is developing the HEGAA system as a weapon of war.
The article concludes: “[A] party engaging in the development of biological agents for which a hostile-use case is plausible (or even obvious, in the case of the Insect Allies program) must present acceptable explanations that its research is only serving peaceful purposes.” The authors demand “robust explanations for the necessity of mandating insect dispersion in routine agricultural or emergency applications.” Without them, “Insect Allies risks being widely perceived as an attempt to develop a means of delivering HEGAAs for offensive purposes.”
University researchers working on the Insect Allies program “have publicly identified the target species for their experiments as maize— a crop upon which hundreds of millions of people rely for their basic nutritional needs, mainly in Latin America and Africa.”
News outlets reflecting scientific opinion criticized the program, as evidenced hereand here. The U.S. mainstream media have not. The Washington Post, for example, communicated the DARPA program manager’s opinion that, “I don’t think that the public needs to be worried.” “That seems a stretch,” declared a Post editorialist commenting on weapons-production motives. The New York Times reassuringly quoted the project manager: “This is biology we understand very well.”
While offering no direct proof that the U.S. government is developing biological weapons capability, the article illustrates the difficulty in assigning war-making purposes to technology with peacetime applications. And to tease out offensive purposes from research on defensive capabilities is no easy task. But the history and current manifestations of U.S research and development on biological weapons tell their own story.
Research and development on biological weapons continued within the United States after 1975 when the BWC took effect, as evidenced by a report appearing in 2007 that mentions 400 bio-weapons laboratories operating in the United States. It notes the refusal by 113 U.S. biologic research institutions to comply with mandatory reporting requirements as to purposes of their microbiological research.
Currently a plethora of places and institutions are studying biologic agents, and apparently not for humanitarian or peaceful purposes. An extensive report dated April 29, 2018 from Bulgarian investigative journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva documents research activities the U.S. military carries out abroad. Accessible on her website and elsewhere, the report titled “The Pentagon Bio-weapons” provides circumstantial evidence of U.S. violations of the BWC.
“The US Army regularly produces deadly viruses, bacteria and toxins in direct violation of the UN Convention on the prohibition of Biological Weapons. Hundreds of thousands of unwitting people are systematically exposed to dangerous pathogens and other incurable diseases. Bio-warfare scientists using diplomatic cover test man-made viruses at Pentagon bio- laboratories in 25 countries across the world. These US bio-laboratories are funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) under a $ 2.1 billion military program… and are located in former Soviet Union countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa. [DTRA] has outsourced much of the work under the military program to private companies.”
Her report is replete with images of U.S. facilities, victims, and U.S. military and intelligence documents. Her documentation of generous funding for the various projects and description of some of the microbiological species and illnesses don’t appear in the following summary.
She highlights the [Senator] Richard Lugar Center located near Tbilisi in Georgia and staffed entirely by U.S. citizens, all enjoying diplomatic immunity. Biologic specimens arrive by diplomatic pouch. At least three U.S. companies do research there for the Pentagon, CIA, and other U.S. agencies.
CH2M Hill and Battelle Companies operate bio-laboratories also in Uganda, Tanzania, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South East Asia. The latter company works in Armenia and at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Metabiota has laboratories in Georgia and Ukraine and formerly in West Africa. The contracted research teams study a variety of disease-causing micro-organisms.
The Lugar Center has housed an insect facility since 2014 and “as a result Tbilisi has been infested with biting flies since 2015” and “flies similar to those in Georgia have appeared in neighboring Dagestan (Russia).” Researchers there study tropical mosquito species that transmit deadly viral illnesses. Those species are now showing up in Southern Russia, Northern Turkey, and throughout Georgia.
Lugar Center researchers study the anthrax bacillus, especially the strain engineered by Soviet germ warfare specialists. Gaytandzhieva disputes Pentagon claims as to the defensive nature of such research.She points to investigation at the Center of the “Genome Sequences” of the Soviet strain of the bacterium and to a U.S. history of developing anthrax as a weapon.
Tularemia is a subject of investigation, as are local ticks that carry tularemia bacteria, which the United States had once converted into a weapon. Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) is another possibly tick-borne disease. Gaytandzhieva claims that study of that disease at the Center caused a “sharp increase of CCHF human cases in 2014” in the surrounding area. There were 237 cases of the disease in Afghanistan in 2017, “41 of which were fatal.” Lugar Center researchers work there too.
The Defense Department funds 11 bio-laboratories in Ukraine, where U.S. personnel work under diplomatic cover. U.S. funding extends to the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine that, supposedly an international entity, “supports projects of scientists previously involved in the Soviet biological weapons program.” Gaytandzhieva attributes sicknesses and deaths among Ukrainians to leakage from U.S. bio-laboratories of organisms causing hepatitis A, swine flu, and cholera – from a new strain.
The journalist reports that the Birmingham-based Southern Research Institute constructed and has operated U.S. bio-laboratories in Ukraine, and also in Germany, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Armenia. The Institute has sponsored anthrax research and for decades was a prime Pentagon biological weapons contractor.
Stopping at nothing
Gaytandzhieva mentions experiments on Botulinum neurotoxin, anthrax spores, and aerosol delivery systems that Metabiologics Company conducted for the U.S. Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah beginning in 2007. She concludes with a survey of heavily funded U.S. studies of emerging viruses, synthetic viruses, and genetically engineered pathogens. The Defense Department is researching “binary biological weapons (a lethal combination of two viruses), host swapping diseases (animal viruses that ‘jump’ to humans, like the Ebola virus), stealth viruses, and designer diseases,” which target particular ethnic groups.
The probability that the U.S. government fashions weapons delivering deadly microorganisms or their products has dire implications. First, U.S. democracy is at great risk. National elections held on November 6 were supposedly about people weighing in on the people’s business. But biological warfare apparently is someone else’s business. The public knows almost nothing about this aspect of U.S. war-making. People don’t get to judge.
Secondly, U.S. use of massively lethal weapons apparently serves the interest of those in charge. If so, U.S. leftists would do well to regard U.S. imperialism as involving more than just foreign interventions and wealth extraction by rich countries. Force itself, it seems, has its own place in the imperialist scheme of things. Biological warfare is an enforcement mechanism. It threatens the death of many, as do nuclear war, carpet bombing, and climate change. They are crimes for which the masters of capitalist imperialism are responsible.
*W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.