Sunday, November 22, 2015

France and Belgium Prepare for CBW Attacks While Europe Sleeps

The rod shaped Anthrax bacteria: Bacillus anthracis bacteria, the cause of anthrax. Magnification: x18,300
b.anthracis
While France and Belgium prepare their populations for continued terrorist attacks and the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, other EU states avoid the obvious conclusion that a prepared public is better than an unprepared one. Several smaller states, excluding Spain and Germany, continue the drum beat that there is no significant threat to them or their civilian populations. In study after study this has not been proven to be the case and public preparedness has been shown to reduce casualties (see:https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/dtra/resilience.pdf; http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/terrorism. 

PM Valls statement on the bio-chem threat was in part motivated by the apparent loss of several bio-chem suits from a Paris hospital. While its possible these suits were misplaced or that inventory lists were incorrect, and warnings are not based singularly on bio-chem suits being unaccounted for, the French have taken appropriate measures.  Belgium has increased security at its nuclear facilities and France has increased protection for water supply facilities taking note of analysis by French intelligence that IS is capable of manufacturing crude chemical warfare agents.


Bacteria
CDC
"Eau de Paris, the capital's state-run water company, has banned access to six sensitive sites to all but key personnel following the Government's decision to declare a state of emergency for three months. "Our eight security agents are the only ones to be accredited by the defence ministry and are in permanent contact with the terrorism cell of Paris police headquarters," a spokesman told Le Parisien." "The storage and treatment sites have protective fencing and special sensors to detect intrusion. To limit the risk of contamination, Eau de Paris has increase the amount of chlorine added to water at five supply sites." "The dose injected has been raised," said Celia Blauel, president of Eau de Paris. Chlorine is a key indicator of any anomaly in the water. "When the chlorine level drops, it means there is a biological contamination." she said." 

"It emerged last week that hospitals and emergency services across France have been supplied with the most powerful antidote to sarin and other nerve gas chemicals for the first time. Under a November 14 decree, the army's medical service was ordered to distribute stocks of the drug atropine. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said that the country could rule nothing out when it came to terrorists bent on mass murder, including "chemical and biological weapons".


"Iraqi and American intelligence have warned that IS is aggressively pursuing development of chemical weapons, setting up a branch dedicated to research and experiments with the help of scientists from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region. French intelligence agents are convinced that IS is producing mustard gas, after obtaining samples from in Syria. However, US intelligence officials do not believe that IS has the capability to develop sophisticated weapons such as nerve gas.
See: http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/paris-attacks/74282446/paris-attacks-fears-of-a-biological-attack-on-water-supplies

While the US intelligence community may split hairs over the capability of IS (ISIL in the US) to manufacture military grade nerve agents, this is largely irrelivant. IS has the capability to manufacture crude chem weapons and they have proven to be quite effective in Syria. 


The security services of both France and Belgium are to be commended. Both countries share similar population demographics and have extensive experience with terrorism. Additionally, they have both worked, since 911, to prepare their populations for such bio-chem attacks, some of these scenarios I developed and ran myself with their government officials in attendance. Far from being the weakest link, as some media outlets have portrayed the situation, they are in fact the best prepared within the EU to counter such threats.  The weakest link are those countries who have not prepared their public, are currently bombing IS and have announced it on the nightly news without one moment of thought to the risk they have placed their population in and no counter-terrorism or counter intelligence experience to fall back on. 


In 2005, French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin called for international cooperation against bioterrorism at an Interpol meeting in Lyon. He promoted the idea of creating a joint database and a rapid alert network for theft, diversion and illegal transfer of biological agents, as well as a list of designated groups and individuals of concern. De Villepin also proposed the creation of an international center for monitoring bio terrorist threats. Mr. de Villepin went on to plead for a better coordination of Biotox style (the French government response to the deliberate introduction of the smallpox virus) plans at European level. "Why not to imagine for example a European reaction plan against a biological attack?"he asked. Furthermore, he added, the EU should initiate an update on reserves of vaccines so that each country knows the nearest country to turn to in case of emergency." See: http://cordis.europa.eu/news/rcn/23453_en.html


For over a decade the French government has established itself as the gold standard when it comes to bio-security, bio-safety and certainly countering, on the ground threats from would be bio-terrorists. In 2003, French authorities discovered ricin like substances in Gare du Lyon train station. Subsequently nine suspects of North African descent, who had trained in the Pankisi Gorge and were associated with AQ were arrested. While this is just one high profile example of a possible bio-threat, the French have developed outstanding and what I would describe as comprehensive capabilities to counter the threat of bio-terrorism. This depth of expertise offers a lot from which Member States within the EU could well benefit. France's Biotox-Piratox under their Vigipirate model is and has been a clear forerunner in bio-security and bio-safety for the analysis of attacks with deliberate disease. The French model, according to a report by European Hospital, published in 2013 includes the following structure: See: http://www.european-hospital.com/en/article/11331-French_bio-terrorism_network_of_labs.html


"Born in the USA out of the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks, the formation of a network of laboratories kept on 24/7 alert against potential bio-terrorism was introduced in France at the end of 2001.



Initially interested only in the search for Bacillus anthracis, (the causative agent of anthrax), the structure was enlarged in 2004 with the mission to carry out the analysis of all chemical and biological agents that could present a terrorist threat.
Under the jurisdiction of the Interior Minister for National Defence and Safety, a network of laboratories known as Biotox-Piratox has evolved, within the context of the national security plan ‘Vigipirate’.
Since 2011, the network has extended its missions to include the discovery of all substances of suspect nature in the environment, in drinking water, and/or the food chain, that could have been placed by a deliberate malevolent act, or by negligence. The aim of the network is to act efficiently and promptly in collaboration with the health services, police and army to eliminate the threat and protect the general public."
Structure of Biotox-Piratox
According to the European Hospital report, "Dr. Binder, President of the Network's Scientific Board and Security Defence Advisor for INSERM, will present the work of the network at the Journées Internationales de Internationales de Biologie (JIB) in Paris at the beginning of November.The network has been set up to work in a way that is optimal when confronted with a potential biological or chemical risk to public health. The network is organised over three levels. Level one is known as our ‘sentinel laboratories’. These countrywide laboratories must be able to recognize a suspicious situation, package or sample, alert the authorities, and recognize which of the 100 or so, level 2 laboratories is best adapted to deal with the situation.

‘Each geographical defence-zone in France has at least one reference laboratory for 'human health' and another reference laboratory for chemo-toxicological analysis of the environment. These include 10 water board and 10 military labs. All the level two laboratories were selected from the results of an inquiry carried out by the scientific board in 2005. In addition to their scientific excellence, their specialty, geographical localisation, equipment and ability to maintain a permanent 24-hour cover, were all taken into consideration.
‘For the most part the human-health labs are connected to a public hospital in each zone. While the toxicology environmental labs belong to different bodies including among others the police, gendarmerie and the national agency for food safety. A full list of level two laboratories is available from the Biotox-Piratox council.
‘The level three laboratories are not necessarily mobilized as soon as the level two labs, as they are the highly specialized members of the network. Their role is to confirm the nature of a suspected pathogen and therefore have to be able to carry out rapid identification techniques such as rt-PCR under security conditions of at least category three. They also must have trained personnel for dealing with the treatment and containment of a potential infection of the pathogen.Responsibility for communication with the public for allaying fears and ad hoc communication rests with the governmental services.‘Looking at the archives, since its existence in 2003 the network has dealt with 1,300 alerts. In 2003, 207 separate incidences were recorded, but since 2010 this has reduced to a steady 150 a year. Due in part to better understanding of what we are looking at and the organisation of the network, the number of analyses for suspected agents for bio-terrorism has fallen from 77.8% to fewer than 2% in 2011." 
For an in depth report on French bio-preparedness planning I highly recommend a look at Eurosurveillance, Volume 17, Issue 45, 08 November 2012 "Assessment of the Bio-Preparedness and of the Training of the French Hospital Laboratories in the Even of Biological Threat (http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=20312) An additional reference by Dr. Binder is also recommended, see: https://pro.anses.fr/euroreference/numero7/index.htm

While France and Belgium have spent years preparing for Islamic terrorism and prepared their public to face bio-chem threats, while they have real and extensive experience in Africa and the Middle East and their security services are within the top three in the world, other countries exempt themselves, continuously engage in 'peacekeeping' operations, to look good, lack counter terrorism experience and stand on the side lines criticizing their neighbours. I'm horrified that this particular country has openly criticized Belgium and France on national television while there are on-going operations.  They surely are the weakest link. A couple years ago when I sat with one of their so called 'bio-chem' experts, his total lack of knowledge was stunning. His concept of bio-defence was 'decon.' That was it. It was basically what to do post attack and in my view he struggled with the post attack plan as well. There was no concept of prevention, preparedness or response. In question after question I posed to this individual on board a warship, the only responses he could come up with were so simplistic I fear what will happen when this country is hit with any kind of bio-chem attack. The sad truth is that countries who have deliberately chosen not to prepare their public, who pretend they have no internal jihadi issues, who can't seem to meet their NATO obligations, and avoid the uncomfortable truth that they do not possess the resources, knowledge, expertise or experience in counter terrorism or counter intelligence to protect their public, are in fact the weakest links in Europe.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

French PM Manuel Valls Warns France may face Chemical and Biological Weapon Attacks


Black Six: The BioWarfare Blog: BW Infrastructure Analysis in a Stand Off Environment: Dispelling Political Myths First:
Amid the announcement that bio-chem suits were missing from a Paris hospital, French Prime Minister Valls has warned France may face a chemical and or biological threat from Islamic State. France has also ordered the protection of water facilities under Eau de Paris, which has increased chlorine to five water supply sites. 

IS has used crude chemical weapons, against civilians in Syria and the real concern is that they did not steal or divert these munitions, but appear to have acquired a manufacturing capability. On the biological side, some agents do not need to be weaponized to be effectively deployed in terrorist attacks. France has previous experience with terrorists trying to use a ricin like substance, a crudely made toxin they tried to manufacture to commit acts of terrorism. Islamic State's capabilities appear to be more advanced than other non-state supported terrorist organizations in the past. Like Al Qaeda's Yazid Sufaat, IS seems to have recruited scientists and be in the process of attempting to acquire a CBRN capability.  Sufaat was recruited by AQ to develop mainly anthrax. 

ISIS has used mustard gas on several occasions and according to a Fox report which can be found here: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/11/20/islamic-state-group-making-determined-effort-for-chemical-weapons-iraqi-us/

"Iraqi officials expressed concern that the large safe haven the extremists control since overrunning parts of Iraq and Syria last year has left Iraqi authorities largely in the dark over the IS program. They now have complete freedom to select locations for their labs and production sites and have a wide range of experts, both civilian and military, to aid them," a senior Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press." As further noted in the report, "IS has set up a branch tasked with pursuing chemical weapons, according to a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer and two officials from another Iraqi intelligence agency. They wouldn't give details of the program, including how many personnel it is believed to have or its budget. But al Zamili, citing intelligence reports he has access to, told the AP that the group has managed to attract chemical experts from abroad as well as Iraqi experts, including ones who once worked for Saddam Hussein's now dissolved Military Industrialization Authority. The foreigners include experts from Chechnya and Southeast Asia, the Iraqi intelligence officials said." "IS recently moved its research labs, experts and materials from Iraq to 'secured locations' inside Syria, al Zamili added--apparently out of concern of an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, captured by IS in the summer of 2014."  

Indeed IS manufacturing of chemical weapons is a huge concern and the potential smuggling of these weapons into France would be a worrying development. However, chemical weapons will not go global. Biological weapons have this capacity and in terms of public health security and the risk of epidemics and pandemics the risk IS poses should they develop BW agents would be a very serious situation not only for France but the international community. 

While France has a comprehensive preparedness plan in place for several years, other EU countries do not have such resources allocated to prepare their populations to counter a CBW attack. Several smaller nations in fact have created a false sense of security in their populations and simply do not prepare them at all. This approach to public preparedness  is obviously very concerning. The French plan can be found here: https://pro.anses.fr/euroreference/numero7/index.htm  The announcement by Valls also touches upon national investment in stockpiling for medical counter measures against a range of highly communicable and infectious disease agents. It is unlikely if we consider the traject of AQ that IS will stop at only manufacturing and using chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. It is highly likely they will attempt to smuggle these agents into the EU via Turkey. All efforts must be made to increase support for front line states processing large numbers of refugees and to increase support for refugee camps running along the boarder of Turkey. Refugees represent a very vulnerable population and the exploitation of routes into Europe by IS, possibly to deploy chemical or biological weapons can only be stopped if we intervene at a much earlier stage and go after production sites in country and target would be IS scientists. Classic threat reduction which we would employ against a state actor needs serious review. If IS continues to emerge as a terrorist state we will have to consider threat reduction using a completely different set of principles. 




http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20151119_01978708

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Islamic State and Catastrophic Terrorism: De-skilling in WMD

When we consider 'catastrophic terrorism'  for example, 911, when terrorists used conventional methods of hijacking commercial airlines for use as WMD (weapons of mass destruction), essentially the use of commercial airlines as bombs, its possible to consider this one of the major mass destruction instances of 'de-skilling.' In contrast to the recent, suspected bombing on board the Russian commercial airline Metrojet 9268 over the Sinai which, although causing loss of life is not mass casualty in the sense of 911 and the use of a plane to kill thousands of civilians. The Madrid train bombings, the use again of transportation systems to deliver bombs and cause mass casualties is conventional, catastrophic and mass casualty. In the field of WMD terrorism, the acquisition of biological warfare agents has not occurred in any significant or coordinated undertaking, unlike nuclear materials which have witnessed statistically significant diversion, theft and sale on black markets mainly running through the Balkins. Conventional terrorist weapons continue to dominate acts of mass casualty as the materials required are relatively easy to acquire, manufacture, divert, steal and use. Islamic State has the capacity to build and deploy bombs and have also used chemical agents against civilians on a number of occasions. See: http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-suspected-of-using-chemical-weapon-u-s-says-1439499549

If we talk about a 'history' of biological weapon development outside military and state labs, attempts to develop and use it have failed to result in mass casualty events. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult who made several attempts to use BW, according to Monterey Institute of International Studies who published a detailed chronology of Aum's attempts which can be found here: http://cns.miis.edu/reports/pdfs/aum_chrn.pdf 

"Aum's interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) terrorism can be traced back to 1990. between 1990 and 1995, Aum launched 17 known CBW attacks with motivations ranging from assassination to murder.  Of these attacks, 10 were carried out with chemical weapons (four with Sarin, four with VX, one with phosgene and one with hydrogen cyanide) and seven attempted attacks were carried out with biological agents (four with anthrax and three with botulinum toxin, although in both cases the microbial strains were apparently non-virulent). In addition to these cases Aum is alleged to have killed 20 of its members with VX and has been linked more tenuously to more than 19 other CBW attacks and attempted attacks (13 attacks where Aum involvement is suspected and six possible copycats)."  

Aum is considered by most CBW experts to have been one of the best funded and staffed terrorist organizations at the time involved in research into CBW. Their laboratories were state of the art and they had a number of doctoral and post doc level scientist working with them. Aum invested millions in their CBW efforts and still did not achieve anything close to mass casualty or catastrophic terrorism. During the release of Sarin on the Tokyo subway according to Monterey Institute only 12 people died. When we consider the cost of using a BW agents its generally considered one of the cheapest WMD to use. This was not the case for Aum who worked on their BW program for years and invested millions only to achieve a handful of deaths. In comparison to the 2004, Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people and injured 1,800, conventional weapons used in catastrophic terrorist acts is a far more efficient way to create mass casualties, than the history of BW would seem to suggest. 

However, when we consider the future of BW and its use in catestrophic terrorism, given advances in the life sciences, the concept of 'de-skilling' which begins to emerge is more concerning. As I have previously written on, de-skilling and refer to my colleague Johnathan B. Tucker's work on this topic, see:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology

"[ ] the evolution of many emerging technologies involves a process of de-skilling that, over time, reduces the amount of tacit knowledge required for their use. Chris Chyba of Princeton, for example contends that as whole-genome synthesis is automated, commercialized, and "black-boxed," it will become more accessible to individuals with only basic scientific skills, including terrorists and other malicious actors." See http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology

Tucker contends: 

"Gerald Epstein, of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, writes that whole-genome synthesis “appears to be following a trajectory familiar to other useful techniques: Originally accessible only to a handful of top research groups working at state-of-the-art facilities, synthesis techniques are becoming more widely available as they are refined, simplified, and improved by skilled technicians and craftsmen. Indeed, they are increasingly becoming ‘commoditized,’ as kits, processes, reagents, and services become available for individuals with basic lab training.”[17] In 2007 Epstein and three co-authors predicted that “ten years from now, it may be easier to synthesize almost any pathogenic virus than to obtain it through other means,” although they did not imply that individuals with only basic scientific training will be among the first to acquire this capability.[18]
To date, the de-skilling of synthetic genomics has affected only a few elements of what is actually a complex, multi-step process. Practitioners of de novo viral synthesis note that the most challenging steps do not involve the synthesis of DNA fragments, which can be ordered from commercial suppliers, but the assembly of these fragments into a functional genome and the expression of the viral proteins. According to a report by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, “The technology for synthesizing DNA is readily accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research. In contrast, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art. It is the laboratory procedures downstream from the actual synthesis of DNA that are the limiting steps in recovering viruses from genetic material.”[19] 
When we consider Islamic State and the potential that they can and will use BW, de-skilling becomes a major factor in their ability to develop this capability. They clearly have the resources to finance such operations and it is likely they could attract former scientists from Syria and the Levant to work with them on BW agents for use against other states and or refugee populations. Without having to capture a weapon lab or divert materials, it is possible IS will be able, over the next few years to research and manufacture BW agents. As IS consolidates into a state actor, their acquisition of this capability is concerning. Catastrophic acts of terrorism using BW, particularly against perceived enemy states of IS (Europe, the US, Russia etc.) could well result in mass casualties and pandemics. Again, it is transportation infrastructures which are highly vulnerable and refugee camps which lend themselves to large populations in poor living conditions. These populations are accessible to IS and to terrorist who may infect water supplies, or a general population. The movement of refugees into Europe and the potential to infect these individuals when they are located in central facilities is concerning as well, as it would be the use of people as weapons. While many in the IC consider these concepts to be on the margin of their concerns, given that bombs have always achieved high kill ratios and the use of BW thus far has been extremely limited, governments have still invested billions to protect their citizens from this very scenario. Its time we begin to seriously consider our counter-measures against the increasing and determined intention of IS to create a terrorist state and their increasing potential to use humans as mass casualty weapons. 

In terms of both public health and counter-terrorism, we must increase protection of refugee populations, specifically those who are based in camps along the Turkish boarder and those refugees who may be at an increased risk from IS and other terrorist groups. We must provide increased health checks and far better living conditions for these people, if we want any chance of deterring IS use of BW against our own populations. Refugee populations are by far the most vulnerable and IS exploits any vulnerability they encounter. In terms of immigration into Europe, refugees must be provided a much higher standard of medical checks and treatment compared to current practices. They must also be provided consistent medical treatment, particularly when we consider childhood vaccination schedules and general health checks to make sure they are not unwittingly spreading disease. I believe it is a moral duty to provide this so that people fleeing war torn states do not become the victims of terrorism.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Disruptive Technologies in Bio-Defence

Disruptive technology describes a new technology that displaces an established one. Clayton M. Christiansen separates technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology on the other hand, lacks refinement, is not fully developed, appeals to a limited audience and may not have a proven practical application. (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/disruptive-technology) 




Disruptive technology in the life sciences has changed the landscape of bio-technology and bio-defence.  If we consider bio-defence technology in particular, there are several advances which will likely alter how we conceive of defence and our medical counter measure options. Three major technologies: Virus Like Particles, 3D bio-printers and MIT's 4D self assembling and programmable matter technologies, will likely revolutionize bio-defence. 


In an article by Stu Magnuson, entitled: Chemical-Biological Defence Office to Kick Off Dozens of New Programs, the author contends: "There will be about 3.5 billion from fiscal years 2013 to 2018 to spend on everything from new vaccines and protective gear to information technology that will create a global early warning system for infectious diseases, said Carmen Spencer, the joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "Everything is locked in Jell-O," he cautioned, referring to the continuing resolutions and budget uncertainties that have plagued the Defense Department of late. "Because of the world situation as it is today and the emerging threats, there is much more scrutiny in our ability to protect our armed forces, (and) to prevent WMD proliferation around the globe," Spenser told reporters at an advanced planning briefing for industry day at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md." See: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2013/march/Pages/Chemical-BiologicalDefenseOfficeToKickOffDozensofNewPrograms.aspx
Photo: www.infowars.com 
(nano particles used in untested H1N1 Swine Flu Vaccines)

While preventing proliferation of WMD is a noble cause, advancements, specifically in offensive biological weapon development and deployment platforms, which in some sectors of BW has resulted in 'de-skilling,' make proliferation and acquisition more likely. We simply can not afford to continue countering the threat of BW to our forces with current drug development models, outdated non-proliferation treaties and highly limited methodologies. If we compare developments in the chemical weapon field Johnathan B. Tucker noted in his paper entitled, "The Future of Chemical Weapons:" "At the same time that the process of economic globalization is undermining traditional nonproliferation measures such as export controls, a number of emerging chemical technologies have the potential to transform the nature of the CW threat as well. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, uses a technique called 'combinatorial chemistry' to discover promising drug candidates. This method involves the automated mixing and matching of molecular building blocks to generate a 'library' containing thousands of structurally related compounds, which are then screened for a desired pharmacological activity such as the ability to inhibit a key enzyme. Although harmful substances discovered in this manner typically have no therapeutic value and are set aside, it would be fairly easy to 'mine' a combinatorial database to identify highly toxic compounds that could be developed into CW agents.According to a group of experts convened by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to discuss the implications of emerging technologies for the CWC, 'Some new chemicals found by data base mining will have toxicity characteristics that could lead to their being considered as chemical weapon agents.' Before a new toxic chemical can be turned into an effective weapon, however, it must meet a number of additional requirements, including stability in long term storage, an appropriate degree of volatility or persistence to ensure its effective dissemination, a low cost production method, and the availability of medical antidotes to protect the attacker's own troops." (See: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-future-of-chemical-weapons) I would argue that disruptive technologies will witness, in the near future, the ability to rather swiftly overcome the above mentioned technical threshold issues.


When we consider vaccine production and medical countermeasures for bio-defence, disruptive technologies take on a substantially new meaning. "The Defence Department and the Food and Drug Administration generally takes about fifteen years and an average of 280 million dollars to develop one vaccine." Per the armed services, "Big Pharma is just not interested. Companies in that industry want to produce a billion doses of a vaccine and the military orders quantities in the 100,000 range. Bio-defence is an industry which will likely be revolutionized by these disruptive technologies.Vaccine production for example could be made on demand, while this may undercut big bio-pharma, in the long term it is likely to be highly profitable for this industry.(See: http://www.naitonaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2013/march/Pages/Chemical-BiologicalDefenseOfficeToKickOffDozensofNewPrograms.aspx. 

Additionally, our ability to bio-print vaccines and medical counter-measures will likely increase research and development and substantially decrease manufacturing and delivery times. In terms of drug development to counter the threat BW poses to the war fighter, nano particle vaccine research and development has been on going for the past several years and is a disruptive technology which will substantially change how we deliver vaccines and other drugs. Drug development is only one sector within bio-defence to be revolutionized, it is imperative we consider technologies thus far unrelated to preventing biological weapon deployment in mass casualty scenarios. Advanced BW delivery platforms such as Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV) delivery, requires a different set of counter-measures and an understanding of and appreciation for how this technology could be utilized for purposes beyond surveillance and intelligence collection.





Thursday, August 27, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Bio-hacking and the Future of Bio-terrorism



For some time concern has been raised over 3D and 4D technologies, (with synthetic biology the emerging technological forerunner of these concerns and the NSABB playing watchdog), with regard to how inherent de-skilling may reduce the technical threshold which inhibits most would-be weaponeers from developing and deploying a weaponized biological agent capable of mass destruction. At the somewhat more extreme end, bio-hacking could reduce barriers which are perhaps better left in place.  Bio-hacking  was put on the map in 2013 when molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen delivered a TED talk about Genespace, the DIY science lab she opened in New York in late 2010. See: http://new.ted.com/talks/ellen_jorgensen_biohacking_you_can_do_it_too  


The lab Jorgensen oversees is one of approximately 45 DIY international science groups,of  more than twenty in the US. While some of these labs are rather extreme in their goals, emerging technology such as 3D bioprinting could theoretically reduce the knowledge needed to develop synthetic weapons. So far several of the bio-hacking groups seem to be content with using themselves in experiments and implanting magnets but coding life for the masses and or the non-scientific community, could become a lot easier in a relatively short period of time. 

"But we don't smuggle plutonium. We don't supply chemical weapons. We don't build rockets. Instead we have a hobby that the FBI believes could be so dangerous that they have come up with a special programme to make sense of it. That hobby is to play with genes, proteins and bacteria in our spare time in a homemade lab we constructed from scratch. We are part of a rapidly growing community of amateur geneticists, who are often labelled biopunks, or outlaw biologists. Or, better still, in an analogy to the computer programming enthusiasts of a generation ago, some call us bio-hackers. But instead of software code, we try to tinker with DNA, the code of life. The FBI has set up the Biological Countermeasures Unit ( ) one of their goals in preventing acts of terrorism is to reach out to leading names in the field to quiz them about what they do." See: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1

This surely must be cutting edge bio-security, however, how close are bio-hackers to actually crossing what was considered the technological threshold to creating what might even be considered synthetic biological weapons? After 911 and the US anthrax attacks, I advised governments that mass casualty bio-terrorism was not as simple as it was being touted. In fact I, and several other scientists, focused on state warfare laboratories, considering bio-terrorism not of real world interest. Emerging technology which results in de-skilling however, may make the life of the would be bioweaponeer far easier and reduce what was always considered to be rather insurmountable technical barriers, certainly in the deployment of a mass casualty weapon. 

biohackspace.org 

What is the current view of life sciences deskilling, given the increase in DIY science? Johnathan B.Tucker, a former long time colleague, presented an excellent analysis of the issue in his paper, "Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology? published in The New Atlantis, see: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology, although notably before bio-hacker movement emerged more openly into the media with a cohesive defined goal and group structure. Tucker, in his analysis states: 

"Member of this second school point to a contradictory trend in biotechnological development that they claim will ultimately prove stronger. They note that the evolution of many emerging technologies involves a process of de-skilling that, over time, reduces the amount of tacit knowledge required for their use. Chris Chyba of Princeton, for example, contends that as whole-genome synthesis is automated, commercialized, and 'black-boxed,' it will become more accessible to individuals with only basic scientific skills, including terrorists and other malicious actors (16).De-skilling has already occurred in several genetic-engineering techniques that have been around for more than twenty years, including gene cloning (copying foreign genes in bacteria), transfection (introducing foreign genetic material into a cell), ligation (stitching fragments of DNA together), and the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR (which makes it possible to copy any particular DNA sequence several million fold). Although one must have access to natural genetic material to use these techniques, the associated skill sets have diffused widely across the international scientific community. In fact, a few standard genetic-engineering techniques have been de-skilled to the point that they are now accessible to undergraduates and even advanced high school students, and could therefore be appropriated fairly easily by terrorist groups." See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology   

Gerald Epstein, of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, write that whole-genome synthesis 'appears to be following a trajectory familiar to other useful techniques: Originally accessible only to a handful of top research groups working at state of the art facilities, synthesis techniques are becoming more widely available as they are refined, simplified, and improved by skilled technicians and craftsmen. Indeed, they are increasingly becoming 'commoditized,' as kits, processes, reagents, and services become available for individuals with basic lab training." (17). In 2007 Epstein and three co-authors predicted that 'ten years from now, it may be easier to synthesize almost any pathogenic virus than to obtain it through other means," although they did not imply that individuals with only basic scientific training will be among the first to acquire this capability.(18)" See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

"To date, the de-skilling of synthetic genomics has affected only a few elements of what is actually a complex, multi-step process. Practitioners of de novo viral synthesis note that the most challenging steps do not involve the synthesis of DNA fragments, which can be ordered from commercial suppliers, but the assembly of these fragments into a functional genome and the expression of the viral proteins. According to a report by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, "The technology for synthesizing DNA is rapidly accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research. In contrast, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art. It is the laboratory procedures downstream from the actual synthesis of DNA that are the limiting steps in recovering viruses from genetic material." (19)" See: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

As technology emerges which contributes to deskilling and with the advent of DIY science, we may witness rather rapid advancements which overcome the long time presumed threshold. The bio-hacking community has emerged because techniques used in molecular biology have been de-skilled and the cost has dropped. 




"A couple of decades ago, it took three years to learn how to clone and sequence a gene, and you earned a PhD in the process. Now, thanks to ready made kits you can do the same in less than three days. Specialized materials and second hand equipment are much more affordable, not to mention more available. Machines for amplifying DNA can now be purchased online, whilst enzymes and chemicals for creating, manipulating and sticking together DNA an be ordered off the shelf. The cost of sequencing DNA has plummeted , from about 100,000 for reading a million letters or base pairs, of DNA code in 2001, to around 10 cents today. See:http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1 full review: Warfare Technology Analytics

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Bio-hacking and the Future of Bio-terrorism




For some time concern has been raised over 3D and 4D technologies, (with synthetic biology the emerging technological forerunner of these concerns and the NSABB playing watchdog), with regard to how inherent de-skilling may reduce the technical threshold which inhibits most would-be weaponeers from developing and deploying a weaponized biological agent capable of mass destruction. At the somewhat more extreme end, bio-hacking could reduce barriers which are perhaps better left in place.  Bio-hacking  was put on the map in 2013 when molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen delivered a TED talk about Genespace, the DIY science lab she opened in New York in late 2010. See: http://new.ted.com/talks/ellen_jorgensen_biohacking_you_can_do_it_too  


The lab Jorgensen oversees is one of approximately 45 DIY international science groups,of  more than twenty in the US. While some of these labs are rather extreme in their goals, emerging technology such as 3D bioprinting could theoretically reduce the knowledge needed to develop synthetic weapons. So far several of the bio-hacking groups seem to be content with using themselves in experiments and implanting magnets but coding life for the masses and or the non-scientific community, could become a lot easier in a relatively short period of time. 

"But we don't smuggle plutonium. We don't supply chemical weapons. We don't build rockets. Instead we have a hobby that the FBI believes could be so dangerous that they have come up with a special programme to make sense of it. That hobby is to play with genes, proteins and bacteria in our spare time in a homemade lab we constructed from scratch. We are part of a rapidly growing community of amateur geneticists, who are often labelled biopunks, or outlaw biologists. Or, better still, in an analogy to the computer programming enthusiasts of a generation ago, some call us bio-hackers. But instead of software code, we try to tinker with DNA, the code of life. The FBI has set up the Biological Countermeasures Unit ( ) one of their goals in preventing acts of terrorism is to reach out to leading names in the field to quiz them about what they do." See: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1

This surely must be cutting edge bio-security, however, how close are bio-hackers to actually crossing what was considered the technological threshold to creating what might even be considered synthetic biological weapons? After 911 and the US anthrax attacks, I advised governments that mass casualty bio-terrorism was not as simple as it was being touted. In fact I, and several other scientists, focused on state warfare laboratories, considering bio-terrorism not of real world interest. Emerging technology which results in de-skilling however, may make the life of the would be bioweaponeer far easier and reduce what was always considered to be rather insurmountable technical barriers, certainly in the deployment of a mass casualty weapon. 

biohackspace.org 

What is the current view of life sciences deskilling, given the increase in DIY science? Johnathan B.Tucker, a former long time colleague, presented an excellent analysis of the issue in his paper, "Could Terrorists Exploit Synthetic Biology? published in The New Atlantis, see: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology, although notably before bio-hacker movement emerged more openly into the media with a cohesive defined goal and group structure. Tucker, in his analysis states: 

"Member of this second school point to a contradictory trend in biotechnological development that they claim will ultimately prove stronger. They note that the evolution of many emerging technologies involves a process of de-skilling that, over time, reduces the amount of tacit knowledge required for their use. Chris Chyba of Princeton, for example, contends that as whole-genome synthesis is automated, commercialized, and 'black-boxed,' it will become more accessible to individuals with only basic scientific skills, including terrorists and other malicious actors (16).De-skilling has already occurred in several genetic-engineering techniques that have been around for more than twenty years, including gene cloning (copying foreign genes in bacteria), transfection (introducing foreign genetic material into a cell), ligation (stitching fragments of DNA together), and the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR (which makes it possible to copy any particular DNA sequence several million fold). Although one must have access to natural genetic material to use these techniques, the associated skill sets have diffused widely across the international scientific community. In fact, a few standard genetic-engineering techniques have been de-skilled to the point that they are now accessible to undergraduates and even advanced high school students, and could therefore be appropriated fairly easily by terrorist groups." See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology   

Gerald Epstein, of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, write that whole-genome synthesis 'appears to be following a trajectory familiar to other useful techniques: Originally accessible only to a handful of top research groups working at state of the art facilities, synthesis techniques are becoming more widely available as they are refined, simplified, and improved by skilled technicians and craftsmen. Indeed, they are increasingly becoming 'commoditized,' as kits, processes, reagents, and services become available for individuals with basic lab training." (17). In 2007 Epstein and three co-authors predicted that 'ten years from now, it may be easier to synthesize almost any pathogenic virus than to obtain it through other means," although they did not imply that individuals with only basic scientific training will be among the first to acquire this capability.(18)" See:http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

"To date, the de-skilling of synthetic genomics has affected only a few elements of what is actually a complex, multi-step process. Practitioners of de novo viral synthesis note that the most challenging steps do not involve the synthesis of DNA fragments, which can be ordered from commercial suppliers, but the assembly of these fragments into a functional genome and the expression of the viral proteins. According to a report by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, "The technology for synthesizing DNA is rapidly accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research. In contrast, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art. It is the laboratory procedures downstream from the actual synthesis of DNA that are the limiting steps in recovering viruses from genetic material." (19)" See: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/could-terrorists-exploit-synthetic-biology 

As technology emerges which contributes to deskilling and with the advent of DIY science, we may witness rather rapid advancements which overcome the long time presumed threshold. The bio-hacking community has emerged because techniques used in molecular biology have been de-skilled and the cost has dropped. 




"A couple of decades ago, it took three years to learn how to clone and sequence a gene, and you earned a PhD in the process. Now, thanks to ready made kits you can do the same in less than three days. Specialized materials and second hand equipment are much more affordable, not to mention more available. Machines for amplifying DNA can now be purchased online, whilst enzymes and chemicals for creating, manipulating and sticking together DNA an be ordered off the shelf. The cost of sequencing DNA has plummeted , from about 100,000 for reading a million letters or base pairs, of DNA code in 2001, to around 10 cents today. See:http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-how-we-became-biohackers-part-1 full review: Warfare Technology Analytics

Global Health Security in an Era of Terrorism and Conflict

"Herington has argued that the “great potential of constructing health as a security issue is that it promises the appropriation of  vast resources and institutional attention”. More important, it better reflects the long-term effects of a major public health crisis to all parts of society and human life. Not least, the “Health in all Policies” doctrine could be understood that way." (/see: http://www.coemed.org/images/stories/2014-09-24-ebola%20outbreak%20west%20africa%20risk%20assessment.pdf)

"There is an inevitable linkage between public health security and bioterrorism, but foreign policy is also concerned with broader dimensions of cross-border health risks including, for example, the transmission of anti-microbial resistant organisms, as well as health risks associated with non-communicable diseases, environmental degradation and conflict."(http://www.coemed.org/images/stories/2014-09-24-ebola%20outbreak%20west%20africa%20risk%20assessment.pdf) 

Framing public health as a national security issue, be this via deliberate or natural disease outbreak, has been considered within most NATO Member States a policy priority particularly since the US anthrax attack's which called attention to the potential for 'bio-terrorism.' One of the lessons of Amerithrax, as its often termed is our increased interest in emerging, re-emerging, deliberate and natural disease outbreaks and a greater understanding in the face of transmissible and highly infectious diseases of 'global' public health threats versus the perception of endemic disease as a single state threat. Since the US anthrax attacks, SARS CoV, Avian Influenza, MERS, AMR, Polio, Malaria, Dengue and Ebola (just to name a few) have served to demonstrate how reliant nations are on creating and sustaining global public health infrastructures.

Conflict and disease often go hand in hand and in nations which have experienced conflict its often the case that their public health infrastructures are fragile which may lead to difficulties containing diseases which Western nations would not consider an issue. In terms of public health security we'e only as strong as our weakest link. Conflict and war which require much greater investment in public health and which often times slides under the radar unless it directly effects a western nation or economy is still a neglected sector of investment. Generally this sector is left to NGO's and UN agencies who work on extremely tight budgets just to maintain the minimum required.

Containing trans-boundary disease is not technically unfeasible, rather it is the lack of resources allocated in many instances, which inhibits swift containment as well as war and conflict which dramatically increase disease and simultaneously inhibits effective treatment of patients. Failed states and failing states struggle not only with endemic disease but groups of diseases be it tropical (Dengue, Malaria) or hemorrhagic (VHF's) which their public health infrastructures simply can not manage. Its critical that we understand the dynamics of war and terrorism and the often consequence of increased disease burden  and not only to the state or states directly involved but the international community as a whole.

When Ebola emerged in West Africa the economies and public health infrastructures of the states involved were recovering from civil war, war and other crisis. The World Health Organization which has been raked over the coals for what is perceived as a latent response has run for years on a budget the size of a hospital. Moreover announcing a public health emergency can have devastating effects on the nations involved far beyond disease transmission outside the boarders and can serve to increase mortality rates not decrease this. WHO's reluctance to declare such an emergency is understandable within the context and history of these states. Not only had there never been an Ebola outbreak in these nations, West Africa was recovering from several civil wars and crisis, the impact of then declaring a health emergency would have likely had very detrimental effects.

Preparing for future outbreaks of Ebola and the deliberate use of disease as a weapon, will require a change in mindset, particularly from those nations who are in a position economically to support investment in failed and failing states public health sectors. WHO and Medecines sans Frontieres simply can not do this alone and nor should they be criticized for the efforts undertaken given the outstanding issues involved. Public health is a security issue and prevention, preparedness and response to emergencies which don't acknowledge national borders mean our approach to public health security must be a global one, not a national one. Nations who take this approach are far more likely to protect their own citizens as well as the global community than those that are focused purely on their own national defence.

Although its likely that an act of mass casualty biological terrorism with state backing (not non-state supported bio-terrorism) will present a magnitude of difference on global scales which in my view have not been adequately assessed or prepared for by most states. This will require we work together to assess and contain any such outbreak of deliberate disease. Excluding partners will be to everyone's detriment. Disease is not political it effects everyone indiscriminately and it is a national security issue for all states. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Lowering the threshold for ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) Mass Casualty Terrorism

Emerging technologies are those technologies that are innovative and competitive both in terms of function and accessibility. When we consider emerging technologies, one of the primary novel technologies is 3D printing and its application to weapon and weapon systems development. What sets 3D printing apart however, from other emerging technologies is the lowering of a technical threshold which makes it user friendly to a much wider population. In so doing, it lowers the technical and economic threshold of weapon production.

3D printing has already been used in drone construction and the potential that terrorist organizations either supported by states (Hezbollah/Iran) or with vast financial resources such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, could acquire the means to mass produce disposable weapons at a low cost point is a counter-terror concern. Not only would 3D printing of weapons increase the potential for mass casualty terrorism but standoff weapon systems could well increase this threat replacing the need to even arm terrorist surrogates.  3D printed disposable drones could deliver conventional and unconventional payloads. The ability to swiftly replace captured or destroyed drones would significantly impact methods we currently use in counter-terrorism and warfare.  In an article by Yochi Dreazen entitled: The Next Israeli-Arab War will be Fought with Drones, Mr. Dreazen contends, “In October, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian  security personnel arrested a team of operatives preparing to launch a drone packed with explosives. The events have set off alarms within the Israeli Defence Forces, which last April released a statement declaring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) to be a serious threat to the country. Hezbollah’s drones represent the next evolution of warfare by remote control, when weaponized robotic planes give terrorist groups de facto air forces.” See:  http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117087/next-arab-israeli-war-will-be-fought-drones

As if this were not concerning enough, the 3D printing of drone technology will likely rapidly increase the ability of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS specifically, to deploy disposable drones, reprint them and rapidly replace lost drones or even program them to destruct after the mission. Moreover suicide drones could easily be employed to take out infrastructures and used in mass casualty attacks against civilians. 3D mass production disposable drones would be a game changer for weapons of mass destruction and future terrorist methods and tactics allowing incredible versatility. Smaller 3D produced drones and those designed with swarming technology are likely to evade current counter measures. In a scenario where mixed drones are used, some with conventional payloads, some with un-conventional payloads, multiple strikes would be possible and while the conventional attack would be considered immediate, there could well be long term casualties either from loading the payloads with low level radiological material (small aerial dirty bombs) or biological and chemical weaponized agents.  Such agents could well create multiple rolling outbreaks of pandemic disease or be used as stealthy force reducers/force multipliers. 4D technology, developed at MIT, could mean that printed payloads using biological agents could be weaponized based on target specific data. This would obscure identification and remove some of the barriers which previously served to make this type of weaponization process the domain of state military labs. Essentially making it user friendly to terrorists.

While Israel is one of the best placed nation, both technically and in terms of experience, in countering potential future terrorist weapons, the use of 3D printed technology in a European scenario, would offer ISIS real advantages. With the possible exception of France, most European governments are not quite as well prepared to counter this threat, nor do they believe it is remotely on the horizon. This gap in assessment and experience, combined with general arrogance, greatly advantages ISIS and other terrorists, even lone terrorists who might access 3D printing technology within Europe. To understand how real and how close this technology is and it's accessibility to terrorists, we need only look at a recent article by Adam Clark Estes wherein he notes: “A team from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center at the University of Sheffield, built their disposable drone, a five foot wide guy made of just nine parts that looks like a tiny stealth bomber, using a technique called fused deposition modeling. This additive manufacturing technique has been around since the 1980’s but has recently become faster and cheaper thanks to improved design processes. The ultimate vision, as UAS describes it, is for ‘cheap and potentially disposable UAV’s that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours. Forward operating teams equipped with 3D printers could thus generate their own semi-autonomous micro air force squadrons or airborne surveillance swarms, a kind of first strike desktop printing team hurling disposable drones into the sky.” (http://gizmodo.com/how-3d-printing-will-create-on-demand-swarms-of-disposa-1553933989)

Hezbollah and Hamas both have sophisticated intelligence collection capabilities, what we will likely see with 3D printable drones is the ability to drop disposable surveillance equipment into theaters where previously they would not have access. If the surveillance equipment can be mass produced, and cost effective (disposable) we are likely to see its use by terrorist organizations; a risk assessment of this emerging technology and terrorist applications, could not be undertaken too soon. 

Turning our attention to ISIS, recent reports note that ISIS has increased its use of chemical weapons (see: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/19/middleeast/isis-chemical-weapons/). Several biological agents which are within the purview of ISIS could be well suited for drone deployment. ISIS taking of Palmyra, an area known for its phosphates, is worrying but more so because ISIS possess the technical sophistication to arms drones with CW and BW. Lacking effective in threatre counter measures advantages them in ways which are probably best left to the imagination.  

As breathtaking as this seems it is now reality and one few European governments are planning effectively to counter. Unfortunately there is a technological gap between disposable 3D printed drones and counter technologies to identify, evade and destroy such technology in civilian situations. An advantage our enemies are likely to exploit and in the very near term, not two years or five years down the road.