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Insects as a Bioweapons: Inside the Pentagon’s Controversial Programme

jewel bug on a plant, can be used as bioweapons

Concerns about the potential for bioweapons are raised by the Pentagon’s Insect Allies Programme, which is being investigated for crop defense.

Is the Pentagon’s programme to develop insect allies a front for the creation of bioweapons?

The U.S. government’s ambitious plan to develop virus-carrying insects as a means to combat agricultural challenges has sparked both hope and fear within the scientific community. The “Insect Allies” program, funded by DARPA, aims to release large numbers of insects infected with custom viruses that can deliver beneficial genes to crops, assisting in the fight against pests, drought, and pollution. However, a recent article published in Science’s policy forum by five European researchers warns of the potential misuse of this technology, with concerns that it could be exploited to spread diseases and harm crop species, ultimately compromising global food production.

termite insects on a rock

The article raises questions about the compliance of the “Insect Allies” program with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), as it emphasizes that the development of biological agents without clear peaceful purposes is prohibited. The researchers argue that the difficult-to-control nature of the program and its potential misuse during peacetime make it challenging to justify its existence. By introducing viruses through spraying, the program inadvertently increases the risk of unintended consequences. The authors suggest that if the goal is to protect plants, there remain unanswered questions regarding the program’s safety and feasibility.

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To shed light on the concerns surrounding the project, the researchers have launched a website featuring illustrations depicting “weaponized” insects, aiming to engage journalists and promote a discussion on the responsible development of powerful technologies. The researchers highlight the potential risks associated with genetically modified viruses that could genetically alter species in the environment, emphasizing the need for caution and ethical considerations.

picture of pentagon building taken from above.

While some bioethicists argue that the “Insect Allies” program may not explicitly violate the BWC since DARPA claims peaceful intentions, they caution that developing novel mechanisms for disseminating biological weapons sends a negative signal and may encourage other states to invest in similar technologies. The fear is that nations like Iran could exploit the research to delay or circumvent international agreements, such as the BWC.

DARPA and its supporters vehemently reject claims of developing biological weapons, emphasizing that the program’s intentions are peaceful and focused on protecting crops. They argue that the open call for university proposals and the involvement of reputable institutions reflect the program’s transparent and accountable nature. However, critics remain skeptical, suggesting that the potential for misuse outweighs the limited benefits this breakthrough technology may provide.

Amidst the debate, scientists involved in the project acknowledge the dual-use implications of their research. They argue that nearly all scientific advancements carry the risk of being misused, and it is crucial to balance the potential benefits with responsible oversight. They believe that the Insect Allies program can significantly advance understanding of plant virus-insect interactions and pave the way for innovative crop protection strategies. However, concerns persist regarding the complexity of the approach, the need for advanced technology, and the fundamental understanding required to ensure its safe and responsible implementation.

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darpa logo
The Insect Allies program is being done by DARPA

As the “Insect Allies” program progresses, the scientific community faces the challenge of reconciling the program’s potential benefits with the ethical and security risks it presents. While the intentions of DARPA and the participating scientists remain under scrutiny, the debate serves as a reminder that the development of cutting-edge technologies demands careful consideration of their broader implications and the potential for misuse.

Can insects be used as biological weapons?

Due to their ability to transmit diseases and their widespread presence in diverse ecosystems, insects have been investigated and considered potential biological weapon carriers. In theory, insects could be genetically modified or infected with pathogens, enabling them to transmit disease to specific populations, such as crops, livestock, or humans.

The concept of using insects as biological weapons is not new. Historically, insects such as fleas and mosquitoes have been deployed intentionally as disease vectors during warfare. During World War II, for instance, Japanese forces utilized plague-infected fleas in China, resulting in widespread outbreaks. In addition, various military entities utilized mosquitoes for the transmission of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

biological weapons being handled in a lab
Critics fear that insects may be used as biological weapons

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Even though there have been no documented instances of insects being used as biological weapons in recent years, concerns remain regarding the potential misuse of biotechnology and genetic engineering to increase the effectiveness of insect-based weapons. Advances in genetic manipulation techniques, such as gene editing using CRISPR, have sparked concerns that insects may be engineered to carry and transmit highly contagious or fatal pathogens.

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