From bioweapons to super soldiers: how the UK joins the genomic technology arms race

The British government recently announced the creation of an £800 million (€920 million) taxpayer-funded Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria). Conceived by the British Prime Minister’s former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, and modeled on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the organization will focus in part on genomics research.

Genome technology is becoming an increasingly important part of military research. Given that the UK has some of the best genomics research centers in the world, what effect will the new agency in the arms race have on genomics technology?

In 2019, Darpa announced that it wanted to explore gene-edited soldiers. It has also invested more than $65 million (£45 million) to improve the safety and accuracy of genome editing technologies. At issue is the famous Nobel Prize-winning Crispr-Cas molecular scissors, a tool that can modify DNA by cutting and pasting sections of it.

However, the ease of access and low cost of Crispr-based technologies have raised concerns about potential military genetic modification and the weaponization of viruses or bacteria. These include smallpox or tuberculosis, and can be extremely destructive.

The U.S. is not alone in its military pursuit of genomic technology. Russia and China have been accused of using genomic technology to enhance their military capabilities.

The Super Soldier

Universal Soldier and Captain America are just a few of the Hollywood movies that have explored the concept of the super soldier. Despite their science fiction nature, several countries want to explore the potential of these prospects. Darpa intends to explore genetically edited soldiers to turn them into “antibody factories,” making them resistant to chemical or biological attacks.

In December 2020, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said there was evidence that the Chinese military was conducting experiments on humans with the goal of biologically strengthening soldiers. The claim follows a report by the Jamestown policy think tank, which highlighted reports suggesting that Crispr would form a key technology in China to “improve the combat effectiveness of troops.” However, no further details were provided.

However, not all countries are ready to use gene editing or even genomic technology to improve soldiers. The French military ethics committee recently approved research on “augmenting” soldiers, such as implants that could “improve brain capacity.” However, the committee warned against crossing certain red lines, such as genome editing or eugenics. In the more candid words of French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, it was “a yes to Ironman, but a no to Spiderman” (Ironman gets his superpowers from a suit while Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider).

In Russia, the military is considering equipping its personnel with genetic passports to assess genetic predispositions and biomarkers, e.g., for stress tolerance. This could help place soldiers in appropriate military lines, such as the Navy, Air Force, etc. The genetic project also aims to understand how soldiers react to stressful situations, both physically and mentally.

The British position

There are indications that the UK will be bolder and less responsible in its genetic defense research than many other countries. For example, ARIA will not be subject to freedom of information requests, unlike Darpa.

The UK has also been at the forefront of bringing controversial and groundbreaking non-military technology to the forefront, such as three-parent babies. And there has been no shortage of government reports emphasizing the importance of genome technology in defense and security.

In 2015, a review of British national defense highlighted the influence that advances in genetic engineering can have on “security and prosperity.” In the recent Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy 2021 review, the British government again highlighted its importance to “national defense and security.”

Aria’s proposed lack of accountability, combined with the government’s overall mission to extend genome technology to security and defense applications, will create a focus for debate and discussion. In recent years, British scientists have received Darpa funding for controversial genomic research, such as the genetic extinction of invasive species like mosquitoes or rodents. Despite its promise, this could have disastrous potential to undermine food security and threaten nations’ ecosystems.

The deployment of genomic technology must be managed in a universal, ethical and scientifically sound manner. If not, the possibility of a new arms race to advance this research will only lead to more radical and potentially dangerous solutions. There are many unanswered questions about how Aria will help genomics research in the military. The path the UK chooses will have lasting consequences on how we perceive genomic technology in the public space.

By Yusef Paolo Rabiah, PhD candidate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, UCL

Source: renegadetribune

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