Cautionary portrayals of COVID-19 in mass media have led to a greater understanding of the dangers of a global pandemic, which has helped to reduce the impact the virus has had on populations around the world. However, this has not stopped inaccurate perceptions of the novel coronavirus from leaking into the public. For example, the current limited knowledge on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 has spawned online conspiracy theories asserting the virus as a possible man-made bioweapon. Despite the lack of scientific accuracy in these claims, the threat that comes with bioweapons must not be taken lightly.

Biological warfare - Wikipedia

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), bioterrorism is defined as the purposeful use of a biological agent, such as a virus or bacterium, to infect people, animals, or crops. Typical media portrayals of bioterrorism revolve around the trope of an antagonist designing a bioweapon, such as with action mystery movie, Inferno(Sony Pictures Releasing, 2016), where the villain attempts to eradicate half of mankind with a virus in a twisted form of population control. Meanwhile, in the Resident Evil video game-turned-film series (Capcom, 1996-present), an evil corporation creates a virus used to transform humans into monsters, effectively generating bioweapons that end up wreaking havoc around the world. The consequences of bioterrorism in fiction are clear: large-scale destruction of human life. In reality, the goals of bioterrorists often supplant simply killing people, historically branching off to biological attacks that support specific personal or communal causes.

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One such attack took place in 1984, where the Rajneesh religious movement poisoned salad bars in Oregon with Salmonella in an attempt to ensure their political candidate would win a local election. Perhaps the most infamous example of a bioterrorist attack occurred in 2001, where anthrax spore-covered letters were propagated from an unknown assailant, leading to the deaths of 5 out of 22 infected people.Although the perpetrator was never officially caught, possible motives included the promotion of anthrax vaccines developed by the primary suspect. Overall, the goals of individuals or groups looking to use bioweapons have historically been political or economic in nature,often inducing relatively small-scale societal fear and damage.When elevated to a globalscale, the use of bioweapons between nations becomes especially worrisome, dipping into a concept known as biological warfare.

With advances in various fields of science, the mass production and weaponization of dangerous biological agents has become feasible for many nations. Similar to nuclear warheads, biological warfare represents a combat strategy that can inflict massive damage and casualties to unprepared countries. Fortunately, there have been a lack of recent incidents involving biological attacks due to the Biological Weapons Convention signed in 1972, which internationally outlawed the development and use of biological weapons. In fact, the last recorded indication of bioweapons development by a country dates back to 1979, where the Russian government accidentally leaked anthrax spores into the Russian city of Sverdlovsk. This debacle eerily mirrored the plot of The Crazies (Pittsburgh Films, 1973) in a case of ‘life imitates art’ minus the eponymous infected, crazed victims.

Of course, this does not mean uncooperative countries or terrorist organizations are not developing these weapons in secret. This is perhaps what makes bioweapons so threatening, as unlike nuclear weapons, the development of these ‘biological warheads’ can be woven into fields of research such as medicine and agriculture. Additionally, bioweapons present the possibility of an attack which may fly under the radar of detection, as identification of CDC “Category A” agents like Bacillus anthracis—the cause of anthrax —can be difficult depending on the site of infection. As such, counteracting bioterrorism will require strong biodefense systems dependent on quick detection and immediate responses. Providing training to frontline physicians to identify bioweapon-associated diseases and utilizing robust diagnostic assays for testing will be important steps towards ensuring a biological attack will have a limited impact on society.

References

1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321030#A-worrying-future?

2. Barras and Greub Clin Microbiol and Inf 2014-terrorism

3.https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-not-a-bioweapon-but-bioterrorism-is-a-real-future-threat-135984

4. https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/bioterrorism-an-emerging-global-health-threat.php?aid=30147

5. https://www.cdc.gov/anthrax/bioterrorism/index.html

Unlike what is depicted in media, atargeted bioweapon won’t mutate humans into monsters with cravingsfor flesh, nor would it likely be used to cripple global populations. However, based on the visible economic and societal damagecausedby the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that alarge-scalebioweaponattack could deal a blow to society as devasting as a zombie outbreakcould. Ifthe current pandemic is any indication, having establishedresponsepolicies and formingstrong communication systems between physicians, scientists, and government headswill be pertinent in developing astrong biodefense program looking to preventsocietal collapse following a biological attack

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Matthew Wong

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