Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 5.0: Antibiotic Resistance Case Study
Topic: Implications

There is a concern that publishing experiments like those done in the Levy paper may pose a biosecurity threat because it provides instructions for a rogue individual or group to create pathogens like Y. pestis that are resistant to standard treatment. Making antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains by inserting a plasmid expressing resistance to a specific known antibiotic is routine in most biology research labs. However, Levy was able to show that resistance to six common antibiotics could be transferred from one type of bacteria to another via a single gene. Two of the antibiotics, tetracycline and chloramphenicol, are currently used to treat plague infections.

States or organizations interested in developing biological weapons could cultivate antibiotic resistant pathogens to ensure that if released they would do as much damage as possible. Ken Alibek, a former Soviet biological weapons leader, has reported that during the 1980’s the Soviet Union developed antibiotic-resistant strains of plague, anthrax, tularemia, and glanders bacteria. More recently, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein also employed an ambitious bioweapons program focusing on anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. The directors of the program, two women known as “Dr. Germ” and “Mrs. Anthrax” were arrested in 2003, shortly after the overthrow of Saddam.

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