By Eric Smith, P1 Contributor

The dynamic nature of law enforcement forces police officers to become proficient in numerous fields outside of law. Very rarely, however, are officers expected to approach the world through the lens of a biologist, which can be problematic, since the field of synthetic biology is rapidly developing and can provide individuals with the tools to develop biological weapons.

Preparing law enforcement to respond to a biological incident requires reviewing:

The exact technologies that are available; How bioterrorism differs from a regular pandemic; What law enforcement should be aware of when searching for or encountering biological weapons. Background on bioterrorism

Pathogenic (disease-causing) microscopic organisms have always been a threat. Diseases alone have killed more people than all wars in human history combined. [1]

Law enforcement may not be aware that the world has entered a time of false security. The progress made in vaccine and antibiotic development is outpaced by the arrival of new pathogens and the resurgence of old diseases.

Developing effective biodefense drugs is difficult for numerous reasons. A lack of funding and smaller profit margins has resulted in many pharmaceutical companies cutting infectious disease research or downsizing projects. [2] Over the last 20 years, the average annual number of new and approved antibiotics dropped from 16 from 1981 through1983 to one or two antibiotics from 2008 through 2011. [2]

Stagnant infectious disease research opens up the potential for a highly successful and fatal release of a biological weapon. Due to the lack of new drugs, fewer people getting vaccinated and better biotechnologies, humans are still susceptible to an attack, even with the availability of modern medicine.

Nations are not the only threat to security. Access to technologies to create bioweapons is growing and can be utilized by individuals with a basic background in biology. Synthetic biology and cheap laboratory equipment provide people with the capability to build an effective lab in a reduced space. In addition, unlike radiation, such materials are challenging to trace, and can blend in with normal lab equipment purchases.

LE’s current preparation for biothreats

The average law enforcement officer receives a very basic level of training on biological threats. The Basic POST Police Academy, which certifies all law enforcement in California, places all biological training in a small subunit within eight hours of terrorist training, according to Don Lane, a senior regional consultant for California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training for Region 5. POST takes the approach of providing a lay level understanding of biological incidents, focusing on the proper protection required during an attack. Additional trainings, which are supported by grants from the federal government or are at other facilities, are usually costly, and only certain individuals are sent from a department to become certified, noted Lane. To get all officers from a local department certified would take days, require overtime and can be expensive.

A cursory understanding of a biological incident may not be enough for a patrol officer to identify a threat. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) stated that the first challenge to improve biosecurity “is to maintain an awareness and understanding of technological capabilities and their impact on offense and defense.” [3] These technologies are vast, evolving and can provide an individual with a significant amount of power. A bioweapon that utilizes highly pathogenic particles that are only one to five microns (extremely tiny) can be synthesized, and these particles can be more effective than the particles found in nature. [4] Therefore, technology can change the dynamic of an outbreak and create a unique situation. As a result, developing biosurveillance is as important as knowing how to respond.

Scientific developments and implications

Most law enforcement officers are unaware of CRISPR/CAS9 technology and synthetic biology, and the devastation that can be accomplished if misused.

CRISPR/CAS9 technology uses a natural system that occurs in living cells to easily manipulate genetic material. In addition, there are new DNA synthesis techniques, which combine fragments of DNA. [3] These combined DNA fragments can form a fully functional strand of DNA. Coupled with CRISPR/CAS9 technology, and a better understanding of gene regulations, an individual can create a new cell, virus, or bacteria.

The PCAST acknowledged that possible misemployment may include developing drug-resistant pathogens, recreating old pathogens, or using genetic material to develop a novel pathogen, which is a new type of disease that currently does not exist. So far, the re-creation of old pathogens continues to be the common danger, such as with smallpox.

In 2016, Canadian researchers wrote about how they synthesized an extinct pox virus, specifically horsepox, with only $100,000 worth of resources. [5] Synthesis of this virus could have easily been designed to reproduce smallpox. It is only a matter of time until an individual with a minimal amount of training follows published blueprints like the horsepox article and recreates a deadly pathogen. Obtaining DNA becomes easier, and the techniques available will allow individuals to modify sequences any way they would like.

The risks of biohacking and “do-it-yourself biology”

A recent phenomenon called “do-it-yourself biology” sees individuals performing projects in their own homes. One of the goals of this movement, says biohacking expert Dr. Thomas Landrain, is to make biology easier to engineer. [6] People are able to follow complex biological manipulations with even less formal education than before. While current projects are modest with the potential for these individuals to develop weapons remaining low, it would be possible for biologists to blend into this community and coordinate a massive attack in multiple locations.

These biohacking communities have been growing throughout the world, and most cities do not have restrictions on what people do with their properties. Individuals can convert their garages into makeshift laboratories. [7] Without the proper warrants, local law enforcement would be completely unaware of a biological lab within a person’s property.

Nations with resources and facilities can also use these new technologies, such as CRISPR/CAS9 and DNA splicing, to produce sophisticated and superior microbes.

LE identification of biothreats

Law enforcement has been looking for the wrong things when screening for bioweapons, but with a proper understanding of the above technologies, they will be able to improve their education and ability to screen individuals.

Retired Air Force Colonel Randall Larsen smuggled a test tube filled with weaponized powder Bacillus gobigii into a meeting with Vice President Cheney at the White House to demonstrate the potential of a bioweapon. [8]

The hope is that law enforcement will start to identify the components of bioweapons by utilizing trainings similar to the ones made available for identifying fentanyl, which shares many similarities to how a bioweapon should be handled. The opioid crisis the United States faces has led to new trainings, bulletins and reports by local and federal agencies. Officers are recommended to take personal protective equipment (PPE) precautions if fentanyl is identified and should request hazmat resources.

If an officer searches a suspect and discovers a test tube filled with a white powder, the situation may require similar precautions to discovering fentanyl, and an informed response may include considering the tube to contain a bioweapon. One may deem it a biological threat if an individual is a student, near a university, and/or is carrying personal protecting equipment. Alternatively, an officer may consider whether the individual is near a target site, such as a train station or airport, or if they appear to be under the influence of narcotics.

There are numerous other considerations. For example, an individual might use simpler methods to disperse an agent, such as self-infecting themselves and purposefully sneezing and coughing around a population. An attack could also be the work of a nation or one person.

Following biological technologies can help officers judge whether a nation or person may have the capabilities to make a bioweapon, whether they should dawn PPE, evacuate the area, and/or call hazmat.

Another scenario may include officers serving a warrant and discovering a biological “do-it-yourself” lab. A better quarantine response may stem from an officer thinking they were exposed to a pathogen, and/or on their ability to judge whether a person may be working on a dangerous agent in their home. The scenarios above are examples of improved law enforcement decisions due to increased awareness.

Police biosurveillance training

Increasing available trainings can assist local agencies with expanding biological knowledge. This can be accomplished by partnering with a local hospital or local public health department to provide agencies with the necessary resources to inform them of new biotechnologies, flu trends and biosurveillance results.

Additional partnerships could also include local and regional universities with biology programs. Periodic updates can increase awareness of biotechnologies and the increasing threat of a bioweapon.

Small trainings and bulletins put on by any of the above listed resources and hazmat teams can also serve to educate officers. The dissemination of knowledge is more important than focusing on high-cost trainings, as awareness is the key to monitoring the potential for a biological attack.

References 1. Inhorn MC, Brown PJ. The Anthropology of Infectious Disease. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1990, 19(1), 89-117.

2. Mirsalis JC. A New Paradigm for Engaging the War on Infectious Disease. Lecture presented at Biosecurity and Bioterrorism Response Course (BioE 122) in Stanford, Li Ka Shing, Palo Alto, February 21, 2018.

3. United States, PCAST, Executive Office of the President. Washington, D.C.: President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2016, pp. 1-19.

4. Boukhman Trounce M. BioSecurity and Bioterrorism Response. Lecture presented at Biosecurity and Bioterrorism Response Course (BioE 122) in Stanford, Li Ka Shing, Palo Alto, January 22, 2018.

5. Kupferschmidt K. How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA.

6. Landrain T, Meyer M, Perez AM, Sussan R. Do-it-yourself biology: Challenges and promises for an open science and technology movement. Systems and Synthetic Biology, 2013, 7(3), 115-126.

7. Schauenberg T. Biohacking – genetic engineering from your garage.

8. Hylton WS. How Ready Are We for Bioterrorism?

Bibliography Richards EP, Rathbun KC, Brito CS, Luna A. The Role of Law Enforcement in Public Health Emergencies, Special Considerations for an All-Hazards Approach. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

United States, Department of Justice, Drug enforcement Administration. Fentanyl: A Briefing Guide for First Responders.

About the author Eric Smith joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Explorer Program (LASD) in August 2012. After graduating from LASD’s North Academy, Eric worked Uniform Patrol at the Lost Hills Sheriff Station and at Transit Services Bureau (formerly Transit Policing Division).

Eric is currently studying biology as an undergraduate at Stanford University and is also researching immunology at the medical school. Eric will be part of the 2018-2019 teaching team for Stanford’s Biosecurity and Bioterrorism Response Course (BioE 122) and plans on integrating law enforcement with biological sciences to further develop the U.S. biosecurity plans.

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