A paper by Dr. Lawrence Roberge, Professor, Labouré College, USA

The purpose of this research was to explore evidence that invasive species (aka Non Indigenous Species-NIS) could be used as a biological weapon (BW). The five important attributes of a BW agent are: High virulence coupled with high host specificity; high degree of controllability; lack of timely countermeasures to the attacked population; ability to camouflage the agent with relative ease; and high degree of resistance to adverse environmental forces. NIS fits most of these criteria as they are a non-native species introduced into a foreign ecosystem that successfully flourish and damage the abiotic or biotic factors of that ecosystem. Previous historical events have suggested a NIS-BW application by ecoterrorists, but this research paper explores this process based on methods using ecological niche modeling (ENM) that could be used to determine NIS success and target selection.

This research is significant as it describes a threat to biosecurity and biodefense by using NIS in BW attacks by hostile actors (e.g. aggressor nation, bioterrorists, or lone individual) as well as the various BW targets (e.g. public health, ecosystems, agricultural commodities, biofuel feed stocks). The vulnerability of nations to NIS-BW introduction as well as the risk factors favoring NIS-BW are also examined.

The use of the ENM tool GARP (Genetic Algorithm for Rule-set Prediction) has found promise in predicting the range and effective invasiveness of an organism prior to the actual invasion. Two models are presented to describe the process of NIS-BW by hostile actors- one using a single invasive species and one leading to an invasion meltdown of the targeted area. Four examples of potential NIS-BW are discussed with supportive evidence for their effectiveness and invasive potential on targets. These examples are: Feral pigs can be used to carry the Nipah virus and spread the disease to humans, cattle and wildlife; the Heartwater pathogen, Ehrlichia ruminantium, a microbe that causes cardio and pulmonary edema that is carried by the tropical bont tick, can kill deer, cattle or other wildlife, and potentially be transmitted to humans; Striga, a plant parasite that can destroy corn crops, and devastate agricultural commodity markets and bio-fuel production; and Barberry plants seeds that are eaten by birds whose droppings spread Wheat Stem Rust-Puccinia graminis, which can cause destruction of wheat harvests resulting in food shortages and wheat export boycotts.

The methods to detect a NIS-BW attack as well as discern an accidental NIS introduction from a deliberate attack are described. Methods to determine a deliberate NIS-BW attack include uncommon routes of entry; extremely high rates of NIS propagules found; or evidence of NIS genetic alternation (e.g. enhancement of invasiveness or colonization traits) as well as human intelligence of a planned NISBW attack or evidence of NIS culturing by a nation state or terrorist facility.

The NIS-BW countermeasure recommendations, either as prevention or remediation, include; expansion of NIS databases, database development of known predators of NIS organisms (i.e. biocontrol), and enhancements of NIS research in field trials. Another counterstrategy is to expand research on potential NIS organisms using enhancements to ENM software and data processing to improve the predictive potential of these tools.

Another countermeasure, the expansion of NIS genomic maps, would serve several purposes. First, it would expand understanding of the role that genetic variability and how selective genes play in invasion survival and colonization of naïve niches. Second, genomic maps would accelerate the development of gene-based diagnostics for NIS-BW detection. Third, NIS genomic maps would help in the detection of genetically engineered NIS organisms. The detection of genetically altered NIS would strongly indicate that a NIS-BW attack had occurred.

Please access the Full Paper by clicking on the following link: Roberge – NCT CBRNe USA 2015

The Full Paper by Roberge will be presented during NCT CBRNe USA Innovation Stream, taking place from April 29 to May 1.

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