May 30, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus could give bioterrorists ideas

Two needles crossed in an X shape

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A security group warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could inspire terrorists to turn to bioweapons.

Why it matters: New technologies like gene-editing have the potential to make future bioweapons deadlier and easier to create, while COVID-19 demonstrates just how vulnerable the world is to any kind of biological threat.

What's happening: On May 25 the Committee on Counter-Terrorism at the Council of Europe issued a statement arguing that the pandemic had raised the risk from bioterrorism.

  • "The intentional use of a pathogen or other biological agent for the purpose of terrorism may prove highly effective and cause damage — both human and economic — on a far grander scale than 'traditional' terrorist attacks," the committee wrote.

Be smart: Scientists overwhelmingly agree that there is little evidence to suggest that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab, rather than emerging naturally from an animal source. But with over 350,000 deaths and trillions in likely economic damage, COVID-19 showed what even a relatively mild but contagious new virus could do.

  • A deliberately engineered and released pathogen would likely be far worse, as I noted in Axios earlier this month. That's because new tools permit the creation of viruses that could be deadlier and more contagious than anything emerging from nature — and because a bioweapon could be released repeatedly, foiling efforts at containment.
  • A 2018 pandemic simulation featuring an engineered bioweapon resulted in a fictional global outbreak that killed 150 million people.

What to watch: In its statement, the Council of Europe committee urged a coordinated international response to bioterrorism, including "a common surveillance system capable of detecting suspicious cases."

Reality check: Even though the novel coronavirus is almost certainly natural in its origins — blame the bats, probably — the global response has been anything but coordinated. It's even more difficult to imagine the world coming together in response to a biological threat that was released deliberately.

Go deeper: The coronavirus pandemic reawakens bioweapon fears

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