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Tech Triumphs or Terrors: The Implications of Emerging Technologies on Bioterrorism

Tech Triumphs or Terrors: The Implications of Emerging Technologies on Bioterrorism
21st February 2024 Anadi
In Insights


The COVID-19 pandemic served as a stark reminder of the profound impact that biological threats can have on global security. The pandemic underscored the vulnerability of even the world’s armed forces to diseases, as evidenced by instances like the evacuation of a significant portion of the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s crew due to a severe COVID outbreak. As societies worldwide grapple with the challenges of a naturally occurring virus, the spectre of intentional and malicious use of emerging technologies looms large. In this context, the intersection of emerging technologies with the potential for bioterrorism becomes a pressing concern. This Insight seeks to unravel the intricate connection between the emerging cutting-edge technologies and the augmentation of bioterrorism capabilities. Simultaneously, it addresses the pressing need for preventive measures to counteract their malevolent misuse, aiming to contribute to a more secure and resilient global landscape.

Emerging Technologies and Bioterrorism

Bioterrorism is the deliberate dissemination of biological agents or toxins with the aim of causing harm or fatalities among humans, animals, or plants. This is done with the intention of intimidating or coercing a government or civilian population to advance political or social objectives. While bioterrorism is not a novel occurrence, historical instances have been relatively contained. Following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, there were incidents involving anthrax-laced letters sent through the mail to media companies and congressional offices, resulting in the loss of five lives. 

Biotechnology refers to a technological field grounded in biology, utilising cellular and biomolecular processes to create innovations and products aimed at enhancing both human well-being and the overall health of the Earth. The advancement of biotechnology has introduced a significant shift, providing increased access to cost-effective yet potent biotechnological tools such as ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’ (CRISPR). Additionally, the reduced expertise required to operate these tools has lowered the barrier for malicious actors to exploit such technology. The disarmament agenda presented by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2018 expresses specific apprehensions regarding the potential of new technologies to diminish obstacles to accessing and utilising prohibited weapons, as exemplified by synthetic biology and gene editing. As technology advances, new tools and methods may be exploited by those with malicious intent, amplifying the risks associated with bioterrorism.

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is a progressive area of scientific research that merges elements from various disciplines, including molecular biology, biophysics, computer engineering, and genetic engineering, to construct new biological systems or redesign existing ones to have new functions. This field has rapidly expanded due to advancements in DNA sequencing and synthesis, which allow for the precise editing and construction of genetic material. The ability to manipulate organisms at the genetic level offers immense potential benefits, such as producing novel therapeutics, sustainable biofuels, and new materials. However, the same technology that can lead to groundbreaking medical and environmental advances presents a dual-use dilemma; that is, it can also be appropriated for the purposes of bioterrorism. 

Advances in synthetic biology raise concerns about the potential for creating biological weapons in labs. In terms of bioterrorism, synthetic biology can be leveraged to engineer pathogens that are more contagious, resilient, or lethal than their natural counterparts. These synthetic organisms can be designed to resist current drugs and vaccines, making them powerful tools for creating a disease outbreak that is difficult to control. Moreover, synthesising toxins or crafting new pathogenic viruses through synthetic genomics can cause extensive harm without relying on natural materials, bypassing the traditional barrier of needing such materials for weaponisation. Another concerning possibility is the alteration of microbes to produce harmful substances while evading detection by conventional biosurveillance systems, thereby complicating public health responses. With the ease of disseminating scientific information and the increasing accessibility of synthetic biology tools, the threshold for creating biological agents has lowered, raising concerns about their use by non-state actors or rogue entities.

Gene Editing 

Recent advancements in gene editing, particularly with CRISPR technology, have sparked enthusiasm for various applications in fields such as medicine and agriculture. However, these breakthroughs also reignite concerns about the potential misuse of gene-editing tools to create weaponised pathogens. In 2016, Bill Gates expressed concern that a future epidemic might emerge from the computer activities of a terrorist aiming to employ genetic engineering to craft a synthetic form of the smallpox virus or an extremely contagious and lethal strain of the flu. Gene editing refers to the capacity to modify and splice DNA at specific locations within the genetic material. CRISPR enables scientists to modify DNA more efficiently and accurately, raising fears that terrorists or nations with moderate capabilities could develop deadlier and more easily spreadable pathogens. While the technology holds promise for addressing genetic mutations, disease resistance in crops, and cancer treatment, the worry is that gene editing may make biological weapons more potent. Countries may manipulate or create new strains of pathogens that possess heightened transmission rates, increased infection capabilities, induce more severe illnesses, or exhibit resistance to conventional treatments. 

The possibility of using gene editing for targeted assassinations by editing a virus to affect a specific individual based on their genetic code is also a concern, although the feasibility of this capability is not yet certain. Furthermore, there are apprehensions that gene editing might facilitate the development of biological weapons capable of discriminating among populations based on ethnic or racial characteristics. Despite the challenges of designing such ‘ethnic weapons’, the historical use of biological weapons in ethnic conflicts emphasises the need for vigilance. South Africa’s apartheid-era Project Coast in 1981 explored such weapons, including discussions on administering an antifertility vaccine to black women. The convergence of reduced expenses, simplified accessibility, and heightened efficacy might not significantly influence major nations; however, it could motivate smaller and rogue states to reevaluate their investment in biological weapons. Any approach aimed at mitigating the risks associated with genetically edited biological weapons should encompass a diverse array of states, not exclusively focusing on major powers.


Nanotechnology, with its ability to manipulate materials on an incredibly small scale, presents a dual-use dilemma—while it has the potential to revolutionise healthcare and materials science, it also offers tools that could be weaponised for bioterrorism. One of the primary concerns with nanotechnology in this context is its ability to enhance the delivery systems for toxins and pathogens. Engineered nanoparticles, due to their minute size, are capable of penetrating biological barriers that would typically block or degrade biological agents. This increased penetration capability means such agents could be delivered more effectively to target organisms or ecosystems. Moreover, nanotechnology can potentially increase the toxicity of inorganic chemicals by virtue of the extensive surface area of nanoparticles, rendering them particularly hazardous. In terms of potency, nanomaterials might carry higher concentrations of toxins, increasing their lethality. Nanotechnology could also facilitate the creation of novel biological agents, allowing precise genetic and molecular manipulation for optimised pathogens. Moreover, the advances in aerosolisation techniques may enhance the spread of bioweapons over a wide area, enabling rapid infection before detection. Aerosol particles refer to solid or liquid particles suspended in the air, ranging in size from a few nanometers to several micrometres. Consequently, combining nanotechnology with synthetic biology could lead to bioweapons with enhanced controllability, potentially utilising nanoparticles for the targeted delivery of gene-editing tools like CRISPR.

Additive Manufacturing     

Additive manufacturing (AM) is the industrial production term for 3D printing, a computer-controlled process of depositing materials in layers to create three-dimensional objects, utilising a variety of materials, including biochemicals, ceramics, metals, and thermoplastics. The UN disarmament agenda underscores the role of AM in exemplifying “the potential of new technology to aid in the covert or unnoticed distribution of controlled or sensitive items”. This poses a specific challenge that necessitates inclusion in international disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives. Three particular AM applications raise concerns: (a) the production of manufacturing or laboratory equipment, (b) bioprinting, and (c) the printing of delivery systems or their components. AM’s versatility extends to printing specific parts for production and laboratory equipment, raising the potential for supporting clandestine biological weapon development. AM enables the production of equipment related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) more discreetly as it is compact, requires less power, and has a smaller footprint. 

Further, bioprinting, with its capacity to produce anything from living tissue to entire organs, introduces complexities, as it involves using living cells sensitive to environmental conditions and tissue construction intricacies. While bioprinting finds positive applications in medicine, such as printing tissue for pharmacological testing, there is a concern regarding its potential misuse in developing biological or chemical weapons. Moreover, the use of AM in producing drone components allows for adaptable designs, enhancing capabilities and suitability for deploying biological weapons.  For instance, in January 2023, West Midlands Police arrested a Birmingham University PhD student who 3D printed a drone for delivering explosive or chemical weapons for ISIS. Printable drone parts are commonly shared within the do-it-yourself (DIY) community, offering an appealing option for non-state actors to produce weapons cheaply and efficiently. Concurrently, the increased capabilities, customisation and readily available nature of off-the-shelf drones also contribute to the concerns surrounding the potential misuse of AM technology.

Artificial Intelligence

The rapid progress of artificial intelligence (AI) has extensive implications across various fields, including its potential application in developing sophisticated biological weapons. This raises concerns due to its accessibility to nonstate entities and individuals. Previous attempts, like Aum Shinrikyo’s efforts to attack a Tokyo subway utilising botulinum toxin in 1993, failed due to a lack of understanding of the bacterium. AI has the potential to contribute to the bioterrorism threat by overcoming past knowledge limitations for non-state actors. Advanced large language models, a form of AI, in particular, can offer insights into pandemic pathogens, suggesting ways to acquire, modify, and distribute them. These models may assist in planning and executing biological attacks by providing guidance on identifying lethal agents, budget considerations, and distribution methods like aerosol devices. While making once-specialised knowledge more accessible, AI could unintentionally empower malicious actors to design or reconstruct more severe and lethal pathogens than their naturally occurring counterparts. AI could theoretically enable bioterrorist attacks by assisting in the design and optimisation of biological weapons to manipulate pathogens, increasing their transmissibility or virulence by altering genetic characteristics, thus making them more dangerous. Additionally, AI poses a cyber threat to digitised biological data, which could be compromised through cyberattacks to steal sensitive genomic health data. Such data could then be misused by malicious actors to engineer highly targeted biological weapons. 

Initiatives for Overcoming Challenges

To better govern the convergence of biotechnology with emerging technologies, stakeholders, including national governments, regional organisations, international institutions, academia, the private sector, and the online DIY community, can take specific actions. Governments should assess technological developments, allocate more resources and strengthen research on biological incident detection and prevention. Regional organisations should collaborate with the biotech industry to address dual-use risks. The Biological Weapons Convention (BTWC) 1972 should undergo reforms to address convergence and potential misuse. Academic institutions should include ethics and biosafety courses, foster interdisciplinary assessments, and enhance collaboration among national academies. The private sector should strengthen its commitment to internal governance and adherence to established compliance standards. Simultaneously, the DIY community can take the initiative to arrange biosecurity workshops and actively participate in global initiatives aimed at fostering responsible scientific practices and raising awareness about biosecurity.      

Further, tech companies need to work together to develop advanced tools to investigate and trace the source of biological weapons. This means investing in research on monitoring and quick testing for common diseases and potential biological weapons. They should invest in developing AI tools that can be used to monitor and combat terrorist activity online, such as identifying suspicious financial transactions or monitoring internet spaces for terrorist activity. AI companies should collaborate with law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies to provide AI-enabled solutions that enhance the effectiveness of existing capacities and help manage the massive increase in data associated with counter-terrorism efforts. Additionally, tech companies should collaborate with government agencies, academia, and private research institutes to facilitate the development of therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostic tools for countering biological warfare agents.

There is a need for a global network focused on detection and surveillance, utilising information technology for immediate reporting and analysis. While comprehensive preparedness and international cooperation may not entirely prevent bioterrorism, they can significantly minimise casualties, economic impact, and fear. Furthermore, strengthening collaboration among all agencies responsible for national security is essential, fostering stronger connections with the scientific community and public health services to enhance intelligence and surveillance against bioterrorism. Modifications to current export control systems will be necessary to enhance their effectiveness in restricting the risk of biological warfare and bioterrorism.

Consequently, addressing the looming threat of bioterrorism, propelled by advancements in emerging technologies such as AI, additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and gene editing, necessitates a multifaceted approach. International collaboration must be fostered, promoting information sharing and coordinated responses to rapidly detect and mitigate potential bioterror threats. Comprehensive risk assessments should be conducted to identify vulnerabilities at the intersection of these technologies. Public awareness and education initiatives are crucial to informing communities about the responsible use of these technologies and the potential consequences of their misuse. Establishing and enforcing international standards for biological security is paramount, guarding against unauthorised access to perilous technologies. Establishing a global early warning system, leveraging AI and other technologies, can detect and predict potential bioterrorism events. Regularly updating emergency response protocols, involving coordination among governments, international organisations, and the private sector, is imperative. Considering temporary moratoriums on high-risk research areas until safety measures and ethical considerations are in place can be a precautionary step. In tandem, these measures collectively form a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the risks associated with bioterrorism emanating from advancements in emerging technologies.

Anadi is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi, India. She is working on a book project tentatively titled “Non-Traditional Security Threats in South Asia: Challenges for India”. Her areas of interest are traditional and non-traditional security threats, peace and conflict studies, arms control and disarmament, Indian Foreign Policy, climate security and fragile states.