Viruses as Weapons? Caltech Biologist Doesn’t Think So


Corona virus imageViruses are at the top of most of our minds lately, for good reason. This Coronavirus/COVID-19 stuff is scary. Not only do we have a virus that’s making people really sick (and killing many as well), but there is so much unknown about the virus and how it will affect us in the long term.

Add to this the amount of misinformation that’s being spread around via social media, and the conspiracy theories (such as using these viruses as weapons) that have been popping up, and it’s easy to see how panic could spread as fast as the disease itself.

But how likely are some of these conspiracy theories?

Take the whole, “this virus is a weapon sent by [insert country/group here] to lower the population and defeat [insert political ideology here]” idea. Sounds like the premise of a bad movie, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it HAS been used in movies.

A while back, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Alexei Aravin, a biologist over at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), about some of the science behind the movie Inferno (based on the novel by Dan Brown). How would something like viruses as weapons work in real life? Are bioweapons something we need to be concerned about in the real world?

According to Dr. Aravin, the answer is both yes and no.

In Inferno, we have a madman with both educational and financial resources enough to be able to work with a virus and modify it heavily enough to make it work the way he wants (aka, to kill a large percentage of the world). He’s got a few followers who are shown in the film. Even with these resources, however, Dr. Aravin says viruses as we know them wouldn’t behave in quite the way the antagonist needs them to. There are a lot of complexities to take into account, including some major things a madman or organization would have to overcome in order to infect the world with a massive virus.

Image: Dr. Alexei Aravin, Caltech

The first, in relation to Inferno, is that it’s really unlikely one person could pull off a plan like this on his own. One madman, even with the help of some associates, trying to infect millions of people with a targeted virus would be extremely difficult when you take into account the way viruses behave.

There would need to be methods of production, testing, transport, planning, and detonation. One man or even one group couldn’t realistically coordinate all this. There would need to be a highly coordinated group of crazy people to carry out this crazy plan.

“And hopefully there are not enough crazy people in the world,” Aravin says, to make this a reality.

While there are a lot of nutty extremists out there, they would all have to be united under the same goal, have in-depth knowledge of viruses, and have resources available to them. All of these things combined make it highly unlikely this sort of operation would remain covert long enough to be carried out without something leaking. And they would need to keep it quiet for some time, because there is a second problem with using viruses as weapons to wipe out any one section of the population.

Using a biological weapon in a calculated, targeted way is much different, from, say, using a nuclear bomb. Both have to be tested extensively to know if they will work. But with a nuke, you can test its destructive capabilities without killing anyone. You can take it out to an unpopulated area where it can stay a relative secret and see if it blows stuff up. With a virus, however, things get a bit more tricky.

The question that needs to be asked when designing targeted viruses, Dr. Aravin says, is, “How would it really behave?”

Viruses, like nukes, would have to be tested in order to know their exact effects.

And yes, they can be tested on animals, but every creature reacts to viruses differently. Something could kill a monkey but would not be exactly right to have the same effect on a person. In order to test how a virus would behave in a human, it would have to be tested on a human. And not just on one human, but on many, to ensure, again, the weapon has its desired effect. Not everyone reacts to viruses in the same way, and so you would need to have a large sample of humans to test.

The likelihood that this would go unnoticed in real life is very slim. It could work in the short term, but the length of time it would take for the virus to be developed, and then tested, and then delivered, not to mention the time it would take to actually infect enough people to be effective, would make a secret operation impossible. Using a virus would probably be one of the least efficient ways to wipe out the majority of the human race there is.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in Columbia Pictures’ “Inferno.” Image: Sony/Columbia

Another major problem with using bioweapons and targeted viruses as a way to attack your enemies, Aravin says, is this: “You want to make sure it won’t kill your own people instead of the enemy.”

It’s kind of hard to celebrate a victory against your enemy when your own side has been wiped out as well. Any virus that can attack one group of people could attack all people. It would be very hard to keep it contained. There could be a vaccine against the virus, but this adds another layer of complications to an already overly complicated plan. You’d have to vaccinate all the people you want to save.

The more people who know the plan involves a virus means there is a high likelihood the plan will be leaked, even in an accidental way. “Everyone at school got a vaccine today for some reason!” is not exactly going to go unnoticed. And once a vaccine exists, it means a countermeasure exists. People could get vaccinated as fast as the virus spreads, making its impact far less than “ideal,” in a terrorist’s mind.

So while this idea of viruses as weapons is great in fiction, it’s not very likely to happen in fact, according to Dr. Alexei Aravin. While there are crazy people out there with agendas and with resources and knowledge, all the factors together would make using a virus as a weapon to carry out someone’s dirty work extremely unlikely.

We do live in a scary world, and as we discover more and more things, it can get even scarier. There are groups of people out there who wish harm on others, and who do harm them. There are people who would go to great lengths to do bad things.

But for right now, let’s focus on the scary things that are REAL, that we can have an element of control over, before we start panicking about things that are extremely unlikely, like the use of viruses as weapons in this case.

Wash your hands, stay home, and if you absolutely have to go out, avoid crowds as much as possible. And heck, if you’re bored, you could do worse than to check out the movie Inferno!

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