As researchers discover more agents that alter mental states, the Chemical Weapons Convention needs modification to help ensure that the life sciences are not used for hostile purposes, says Malcolm Dando.
In October 2002, Chechen rebel fighters held more than 750 people hostage at a Nord-Ost production in a theatre in Moscow. The siege was broken only after special military forces used what the Russian Health Minister, Yuri Shevchenko, later described as a mixture of substances derived from fentanyl — an opiate developed in the 1950s as an anaesthetic. Widespread relief that many of the hostages were saved was tempered by 124 of them being killed by the gas.
Chemicals with effects like those of fentanyl are often known as ‘incapacitating agents’. These substances affect biochemical processes and physiological systems to produce a disabling condition such as unconsciousness, and in higher concentrations can cause death. With effects that last from hours to days, they are distinct from standard riot-control agents such as CS gas, which cause sensory irritation that disappears shortly after termination of exposure.
That Russian special military forces resorted to using fentanyl in Moscow is a possible harbinger of the wider militarization of advances in the biological sciences.
Attempts to exploit benignly intended research for hostile purposes are not new. After the Second World War, the international medical community began to discover compounds that alleviated symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression and mood swings. These findings weren’t accompanied by a good understanding of how the drugs worked. Nevertheless, they prompted nations to ramp up their efforts to find chemicals suited to military use. In fact, in 1959, the chairman of the UK government’s secret Chemistry Committee of the Advisory Council on Scientific Research and Technical Development told his colleagues that the committee was “looking for agents which would produce, not cure, psychoses”1.
Between the early 1950s and 1970s, researchers working in laboratories that eventually became the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense studied chemical agents that affect the central nervous system. Indeed in 1961, the US military weaponized BZ — a drug that had originally been studied as a possible therapy for gastrointestinal diseases. BZ is one of a group of chemicals that act on the brain and can cause delirium; people exposed to it may fall into a stupor, struggle to speak, show poor coordination and have difficulty processing thoughts.
Despite the long-standing interest the defence industry has shown in drugs that alter people’s physiological and mental states, a lack of knowledge has hampered attempts to use them. For example, by 1966, the US military had stockpiled munitions capable of delivering BZ, but its mode and site of action were poorly understood, and its effects varied widely from person to person. This and other problems led to its abandonment. The United States destroyed its stocks by 1990, several years before the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force in 1997.
Current biochemical threats range from lethal chemical agents to traditional and genetically modified biological agents. In general, biological agents such as anthrax cause governments the most concern. Only a few pathogens are suitable for military use, however. For example, smallpox could prove useful as a weapon because it is highly contagious; anthrax because it has a life cycle that involves the production of long-lived spores. The limited range of possibilities means that there is a good chance of developing countermeasures such as vaccines or antibiotics against these agents. Even if efforts are made to modify them — for example by introducing genes that encode antibiotic resistance — the problem of designing countermeasures is potentially surmountable because the range of effective manipulations that can be made is also limited.
But recent scientific and technological advances could transform the biochemical-threat landscape. Indeed, in 2003, military analysts from the Counterproliferation and Technology Office of the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington DC predicted that emerging biotechnologies were likely to lead to a “paradigm shift” in the development of biological warfare agents2. They warned that it would soon become possible to engineer agents to target specific human biological systems at the molecular level.
This idea of identifying crucial biochemical pathways, and then designing compounds to disrupt them is a leap from the traditional model of biological-agent development. It expands the options: there are likely to be thousands of potential molecular targets and numerous ways of disrupting each one.