Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A new form of war?

It sounds like science fiction: A research program funded by the U.S. government plans to create virus-carrying insects that, released in vast numbers, could help crops fight threats such as pests, drought, or pollution. “Insect Allies,” as the $45 million, 4-year program is called, was launched in 2016 with little fanfare. But in a policy forum in this week’s issue of Science, five European researchers paint a far bleaker scenario. If successful, the technique could be used by malicious actors to help spread diseases to almost any crop species and devastate harvests, they say. Funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, Insect Allies aims to use insects such as aphids or whiteflies to infect crops with tailormade viruses.

Critics charge that “the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.” The BWC is strongly worded, banning the development of any biological agents “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes,” says Silja Voeneky, a legal scholar at the University of Freiburg in Germany and one of the authors. It’s hard to see such a justification for Insect Allies, she argues, because the method is hard to control and unlikely to be allowed in peacetime. Besides, there is an easier way to introduce viruses to plants: spraying. “If the peaceful purpose is to protect plants, there are all these unanswered questions,” Voeneky says.

Blake Bextine, who manages the project at DARPA, says the critics are wrong. “DARPA is producing neither biological weapons nor the means for their delivery,” he says. James Stack, a plant pathologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who serves on an advisory panel for Insect Allies, says the idea is nonsense. “If DARPA wanted to develop biological weapons to circumvent the [BWC], it is beyond credible to believe that they would have advertised a general call for universities to submit proposals to do the research.” 

Still, Bextine and Stack acknowledge that the research in Insect Allies could be misused. “There are dual-use implications for almost every type of research conducted and for every new technology developed,” Stack wrote. “Having said that, this is a fairly complicated approach requiring not only expertise with sophisticated technologies, but also deep knowledge and a fundamental understanding of the systems under study. There are many easier ways to cause harm.” 


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