Published time: 5 Oct, 2018 00:47 Edited time: 5 Oct, 2018 08:10
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Genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes being tested © Paulo Whitaker / Reuters
A US military program dubbed 'Insect Allies' could be used as a biological weapon, a group of European scientists warns. The Pentagon's research arm claims they are intended to defend crops, but doesn't deny 'dual-use' potential.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg in Germany, as well as the University of Montpellier, France, have published a critique of the program, dubbed " Insect Allies," in the October 5 edition of Science.
They argue that "the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to national emergencies" and therefore the program "may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery," which would mean a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.
Speaking to Gizmodo on Thursday, Dr. Blake Bextine, program manager of Insect Allies, said that DARPA was "not producing biological weapons, and we reject the hypothetical scenario," though they "accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology."
However, Bextine's two-page response, released by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency later in the day, did not contain the forceful denial of bioweapons charges. Instead, Bextine argued the program was intended to "respond rapidly to threats to the food supply" and that it was subject to government regulation and transparency rules.
Nothing could possibly go wrong, Bextine firmly emphasized, simply because "every performer in the program is required to include at least three independent kill switches in their systems to shut down functionality of the technology."
DARPA's insect allies would work by injecting the affected crops with gene-editing viruses intended to target whatever ailment affects them, using CRISPR technology. The researchers point out this mechanism could also be used to introduce viruses into healthy organisms, however.
The question is not whether the program can be weaponized; it already has been. DARPA has been one of the major sources of funding for a project to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, armed with a gene-editing virus intended to sterilize the species that transmits malaria. There have been plans to release these GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.
The dispute over Insect Allies comes as Russia has raised concerns about a US biological research facility in Tbilisi, Georgia. A former government minister has recently published online some 100,000 pages of documents about the facility.
The Russian military is now looking into the outbreaks of African swine fever since 2007 that originated in Georgia and spread into Russia, Europe and China.
"The infection strain in the samples collected from animals killed by the disease in those nations was identical to the Georgia-2007 strain," Igor Kirillov, commander of the Russian military branch responsible for defending troops from radiological, chemical and biological weapons, said on Thursday.
The Pentagon, however, rejected Moscow's concerns as part of "a Russian disinformation campaign directed against the West."
For some obscure reason, a US Air Force contract in July 2017 sought samples of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and synovial fluid from Russian subjects who "must be Caucasian." It also sought information on the donor's sex, age, ethnicity, weight, height and medical history, and specifically disqualified tissue samples from Ukraine.
In October that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the country's Human Rights Council that someone was collecting "biological material" from various ethnic groups and regions of the Russian Federation, wondering at the purpose behind this.
Despite worrisome scientific breakthroughs and controversial research programs, so far the notion of a genetically tailored virus being used as a bioweapon has been confined to science fiction. A story published in 2015, titled "Seven Kill Tiger," posited the nightmare scenario of China using such a weapon to wipe out much of Africa.