Is Captain America a Biological Weapon?

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As part of my trip to attend the 2017 Meeting of States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), I attended a pre-meeting workshop hosted by the Malaysian and American Permanent Missions to the United Nations. This workshop provided a forum to discuss relevant bioweapons nonproliferation, preparedness and response efforts for deliberate and naturally occurring outbreaks and epidemics, international collaboration mechanisms, and the future of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) leading up to the Meeting of States Parties. During one presentation on the security considerations for advances in genome editing, an interesting question was posed that reframed my perspective on the BWC:

Does the BWC adequately address genetic modification of higher order organisms?

Article I of the BWC states (emphasis added):

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:

(1)  microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;

(2)  weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

Written in the early 1970s, the BWC text is intentionally vague, providing it the flexibility to address emerging and unforeseen threats (eg, prions), but this vagueness leads to questions regarding its scope, especially in the context of higher order organisms—ie, complex organisms such as plants, animals, and humans.

Until this workshop, essentially the entirety of the several years during which I have been paying attention to the BWC, Article I seemed fairly straightforward to me. Beyond toxins (which the BWC explicitly states that it covers), I had always assumed that Article I covered bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Seems pretty obvious, right? Basically, just the things that can intentionally infect humans, animals, or plants in order to directly or indirectly cause harm to target populations.

But what if there is no infection, per se? What if the “biological agent” isn’t a pathogen at all, but rather, a human, animal, or plant? What if the affected individuals are volunteers rather than victims?

Using a fictional example to illustrate these issues, let’s look at the classic superhero Captain America. Captain America underwent some form of human enhancement as part of a US military program that transformed him from tiny weakling Steve Rogers into, well, Chris Evans for the sole purpose of battling Nazis in World War II. Under Article I, normal, naturally occurring pathogens would fall under “microbial or other biological agents,” so it would follow that modified versions of these pathogens would also qualify. But normal humans, animals, and plants do not seem to count as “other biological agents” in the context of the BWC, but what about enhanced or modified versions like Captain America or, perish the thought, the accidentally enhanced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Have we been unwittingly cheering for bioweapons this whole time?

The two principal tenants of Article I are that (1) the BWC specifically addresses biological organisms (as opposed to chemical or nuclear) AND (2) that the organism is used for purposes other than peaceful or protective (ie, for offensive or hostile purposes). The second part is pretty easy; if you have ever read a Captain America comic book or seen a Captain America/Avengers movie, it should be obvious that Captain America was designed for and utilized in an offensive capacity in combat. The first tenant, however, is a little less straightforward. Captain America is certainly a biological organism, but there is no explicit text in Article I that differentiates him from a normal human. Normal humans have been employed in military combat and other forms of violence for the entirety of our existence, but surely, they would not be regulated under the BWC. On the other hand, Captain America clearly is not a normal human, posing the question:

Does the deliberate modification of a human genome change this distinction in the context of the BWC?

The Captain America scenario raises a number of other questions with respect to how a bioweapon might be employed. In this case, Steve Rogers enthusiastically volunteered to be enhanced. Traditional bioweapons scenarios likely involve the victim population being harmed through direct infection or via secondary effects of infecting their animals and/or food sources rather than the attacker voluntarily being “infected” him/herself and posing no risk of infection to the target population. And speaking of “infected,” Captain America wasn’t ever really infected with a biological agent in the traditional sense; his biological makeup was simply modified through some targeted biological/radiological process, but there was no pathogen involved (to my knowledge, anyway; I’m not a superhero expert).

Would this biological/radiological process be regulated under the BWC, and if so, would Captain America then be considered to be a “[weapon], equipment or other means of delivery”? Additionally, there are numerous mechanisms available to enhance higher order organisms, ranging from improving performance through drugs or supplements to deliberate modification of the genome. Some infections can also potentially alter biological traits of higher order organisms, further blurring the line between infection and modification. In one timely example, mosquitoes infected with naturally occurring Wolbachia bacteria exhibit poorer transmission of vectorborne diseases like dengue and Zika.

The tools required to modify the biological traits of higher order organisms, to varying degrees, are rapidly increasing in number, capability, and availability. Considering the potential for these tools, and the resulting organisms, to be utilized for offensive purposes, explicit discussions are needed to ensure that all States Parties have a common understanding of the BWC’s scope and, in turn, adhere to the same norms with respect to the use of advanced biology and biotechnology and genetically modified organisms of all kinds.

The incredible pace of advancement in biology and biotechnology and its impact on the ability to deliberately modify the genomes of higher order organisms necessitates that these types of questions be addressed proactively rather than reactively. The ability to utilize tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 to treat genetic diseases seems to be just over the horizon. In fact, the US FDA recently approved the first directly applied gene therapy to treat blindness caused by an inherited genetic mutation. Scientists have also produced animals with excessive muscle mass using these types of tools, research that could potentially lead to treatments genetic disorders such as muscular dystrophy. If these techniques were utilized to enhance similar properties in normal, healthy humans—or other properties that could provide an advantage in combat—it could essentially result in the creation of super-soldiers, real-life versions of Captain America. In another example, genetically modified mosquitoes have already been employed to reduce local mosquito populations and, therefore, incidence of vectorborne diseases such as Zika and chikungunya. A release of modified bees or other insects in an agricultural area could result in substantial risk to food and economic security in the affected country or region due to the release of a genetically modified higher order organism.

The 2017 BWC Meeting of States Parties succeeded in its mandate to agree upon a program of work for the remainder of the intersessional period before the next Review Conference in 2021. The agreed-upon agenda includes an annual Meeting of Experts that provides for 8 days each year dedicated to substantive discussion about technical and policy issues surrounding:

  • International cooperation and assistance in the context of BWC Article X (2 days)
  • Review of developments in science and technology potentially relevant to the BWC (2 days)
  • Strengthening national implementation of the BWC (1 day)
  • Requesting and providing international assistance, response, and preparedness for deliberate biological incidents in the context of BWC Article VII (2 days)
  • Institutional strengthening the of the BWC—eg, legally binding verification mechanisms (1 day

The two days of discussion about emerging science and technology will be critical to ensuring that the BWC adequately addresses the potential risks posed by a broad range of dual-use science capabilities, but discussion at this level (ie, national delegations) is not sufficient to fully address the risks potentially posed by this kind of research.  As these capabilities become more prolific, it is increasingly likely that they will be utilized—for public health purposes (eg, vector control), military purposes (eg, human enhancement), or otherwise.  Explicit discussion is required in fora such as the BWC to ensure that all States Parties understand and agree on the extent to which these techniques and/or the resulting organisms are regulated by the BWC so that all States Parties adhere to the same established norms, particularly when the issue at hand is technology with potential military applications.