Bacteria and viruses: Future weapons of warfare

By Aurélia Morvan | December 30 2019 09:30AM

Photo: Freepik

Numerous global changes amplify the risks related to biological pathogens: bacteria, viruses, and parasites posing serious threats to humans.

Changes in how we live increase the risk of devastating outbreaks occurring naturally, and emerging technologies make it increasingly easy for new biological threats to be manufactured and released, either deliberately or by accident.

All of this can have huge impacts on individual lives, societal well-being, economic activity, and national security. The World Economic Forum (WEF) discusses this issue in its Global Risks Report 2019 – 14th Edition.

Outbreaks are increasing: the five major causes

Ebola, measles, cholera: between 1980 and 2013, there were 12,012 recorded outbreaks, comprising 44 million individual cases. Not a single country was spared. In June 2018, there were outbreaks of six of the eight categories of disease on the “priority diseases” list of the World Health Organization (WHO) - an unprecedented situation.

The WEF has identified five main trends driving the increased frequency of outbreaks:

  • Globalization.  The surging levels of travel and trade allow localized epidemics to move to cities around the world in less than thirty-six hours.
  • Population density. High-density living, often in unhygienic conditions, makes it easier for infectious diseases to spread.
  • Deforestation. Tree-cover loss is linked to 31% of outbreaks such as Ebola,

Zika, and Nipah virus, which infect forest-dwelling animals such as monkeys and bats. When they enter these areas, humans increase their chances of contacting animal vectors of these viruses.

  • Climate. Mosquitoes, which carry infectious diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, prefer hot weather. Climate change has expanded their range of suitable habitats, allowing them to harm populations that were previously spared.
  • Human displacement. In their efforts to flee war or poverty, migrants travel under poor sanitary conditions, making them vulnerable to acute respiratory infections, measles, malaria, and diarrheal diseases. These four diseases account for between 60 and 80% of deaths for which the cause is known.
Major economic consequences

Thanks to medical breakthroughs and improved public health systems, outbreaks are now less deadly, but they are still expensive.

In 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) infected about 8,000 people and killed 774. This outbreak cost the global economy an estimated US$50 billion. More recently, in 2015, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in South Korea infected only 200 people and killed 38, but led to estimated costs of US$8.5 billion.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine spoke of “catastrophic costs” for the global economy. According to forecasts based on World Bank data, potential pandemics throughout the 21st century could cost US$6 trillion, with annualized costs of US$60 billion.

The threat of bioterrorism

In addition to a growing number of costly natural outbreaks, the global economy is threatened by bioterrorism. Previously restricted to reputable scientific teams, bioconversion technologies are becoming accessible to more and more people.

In 2018, Canadian researchers were able to synthesize the extinct horsepox virus with just US$100,000. Horsepox is benign, but it is a close relative of smallpox, which is extremely dangerous to humans. These scientists argue that, by publishing their synthesis process, they facilitated the creation of new vaccines. But they also facilitated smallpox synthesis, increasing the risk of smallpox being released into the world, either accidentally or intentionally.

Synthetic biology research can lead to the development of biological weapons. The 2001 attacks with letters containing deadly anthrax spores that killed five U.S. residents are proof of that. To reduce this risk, states must strengthen international biotechnology regulation, a daunting challenge in a world racing to make technological advances, according to the WEF. 

The 7 articles in this series:

  1. The environment: the greatest risk to the economy
  2. The U.S. turns inward: a risk to the global economy
  3. Mental health: The social cost of poor mental health
  4. Bacteria and viruses: Future weapons of warfare
  5. Rising sea levels: An increasingly real threat to coastal cities
  6. Ten major future shocks
  7. Ever-intensifying threats
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