A truly scary concept. It is already well-established that certain diseases and conditions afflict some racial groups more than others. For example, there are some diseases that are almost exclusively found in the Jewish community (I'm not being anti-semitic or anything, it's just that the Jewish community is one of the oldest and most racially pure, so they are interesting to scientists).

Now take the concept and turn it upside down. What if, using our knowledge of the human genome, and racially specific traits, together with genetic engineering, we design a disease, let's say a very lethal and contagious one, that only affects members of a particular racial group? Certainly, no racial group is completely pure, but if you also have a vaccine and/or cure designed (which isn't hard, considering you designed the virus/bacterium in the first place), then it's not a big issue. And it's a very potent weapon. You could then unleash the virus and basically engender genocide.

The scarier thing is that this sort of thing could be done by cults or other underground groups. If the Ku Klux Clan could develop an anti-African virus, can you imagine the consequences?

The scariest thing? There's evidence that it's already been done or is being done. A report by the Sunday Times, a highly respected UK newspaper, tells us that the South African government was working on such a virus to apply to Africans. Even more ironic, it appears that Israel is trying to develop or has already developed an Arab specific virus. The storu indicates that though Arabs and Jews are genetically similar, by studying the difference between, say, Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Arabs, Israeli researchers were able to find traits specific only to the Arabs.

Now, I'm no biologist, but I have studied genetics in the past... and, correct me if I'm wrong, but there's less than one hundredth of one percent difference between any given 'race' of human beings. That's > .01 % . The point being that there is little, if not "none at all", biological basis for race. However disappointing it may be to hatemongers, we're all pretty much the same when it comes down to the protein chains that determine who we are.

That being said, I would thing that it would be difficult to develop a biological weapon to target just this small difference, if your only distinguishing feature is the genome of the victim. However, to transmit a disease culturally (as in your example, throughout Jewish people), may be feasible. However, the factor used to attack the victim would be culturally based, not racially based.

Regarding ymelup's writeup, it is obvious nonsense to say that the Jewish people are racially pure. As you'd expect from a mostly-segregated population in a diaspora, there are European Jews, there are Yemeni Jews, there Sephardi Jews, there are African Jews (from Ethiopia), and so on. Guess what? Each looks much like the general population in that region of the world. It is not very convincing to claim that a population which includes, among other things, both blacks and whites is "racially pure".

But within each of the subgroups, there are common genetic traits. This too is to be expected from a group which for the most part did not inter-marry. For instance, there are several diseases specifically more common in European Jews.

Regarding the claim that Israel is developing a racially specific biological weapon, one should not believe everything one reads in The Sunday Times (nor confuse it with The Times!). I don't know that it is "easy" to develop a vaccine to any biological weapon you care to devise. I do know that that Arabs also possess considerable genetic variation. The fact that there are traits more common in Jews than in other people does not imply that Jews are more similar genetically to each other than to other groups. And you'd need to be very sure of your genetic similarities before you could build such a weapon. 1% "friendly" casualties are hardly acceptable for this sort of nightmarish (mis-)application; for comparison, Biology is usually done with p values of 5%, and considerably less accuracy.

I know of no expressed genetic polymorphism that is common to all Jews or to all Arabs.. This is important if, as ymelup states, "by studying the difference between, say, Iraqi Jews and Iraqi Arabs, Israeli researchers were able to find traits specific only to the Arabs". Presumably the scary STV (Sunday Times Virus) is specific to people with these specific traits. These traits are shared by an infinitesimal number of Jews, but common to almost all Arabs. And the trigger has to be extremely steady: with many more than 100 million people infected around Israel, there is a slight danger of mutation, no?

Let's just say that beyond finding the idea repugnant, I find the report extremely doubtful. The Sunday Times has reported many things about Israel; some of them are true.

In a cranky off-topic flame war on at least one listserv, one poster cried out,
....There are rumours of biological research aimed to find genetical traits specific for Arabs, suitable to develop racially-specific biological weapons. Why there are no US missiles and bombs raining on Tel Aviv?1
The irony of the American and British news coverage about alleged "racially specific biological weapons" in Israel and South Africa is that the United States has been trying to develop these weapons since the 1960s.

Ethnic Weapons

The November 1970 issue of the Military Review, the monthly "Professional Journal of the US Army," included an article entitled "Ethnic Weapons" which detailed their research and intentions to date.

In this article, Carl A. Larson (then the head of the Department of Human Genetics at the Institute of Genetics in Sweden) reveals that the United States Military has been studying the actions of different enzymes and the problems that their failure can cause in the human body. And, of course, which ones are hereditary.

For example, the absence of catalase leads to tooth loss and gum ulceration. This was thought to be an "enzyme defect" peculiar to Japanese or East Asian communities, but turned out to have spread much farther. Happily - or not - they discovered and catalogued many more such enzymatic oddities.

With further study, they noticed that a small percentage of the population reacted very badly to two particular anaesthetics, "blocking agents" known as curare and as suxamethonium. The problem was caused by an enzyme deficiency. This, too, seemed to be spread fairly consistency across the world, with the related atypical gene appearing in about four percent of both "European" and "non-European" populations.

This discovery only confirmed what they had already learned about enzyme deficiencies. Even if the absence of catalase were a problem peculiar to, say, only members of the German military in 1944, a weapon targeting that deficiency would take out very few of their forces. However, the scientists found a way around that: the development of enzyme inhibitors.

Enzyme Inhibitors

Enzyme inhibitors were first developed as insecticides in the Rhine Province in the 1930s... just another pesticide with lethal military applications... and for that matter, their development continues today, there3 and elsewhere.4 The discovery that some of them "killed the gardener as well as his beetles"2 led to a cover-up and to the massive development and stockpiling of what became known as nerve gas.

But of course, simply incapacitating massive groups of people isn't good enough for the military. No, what they want is something a little more... fine-tuned.

During World War I, people began mapping what Larson refers to as "blood groups;" they found, for example, that

In central Asia, the B-gene frequency comes near 30 percent; in American Indians, this gene is originally absent. When new blood group systems were discovered, European, Asian, and African populations could be characterized by a number of independently varying gene frequencies. Widely used in such studies of human population is the ability to taste diluted solutione of phenylthiourea. Persons who carry a variant of the taster gene on both of the critical chromosome are nontasters. If somebody were to dissolve a sufficient amount of phenylthiourea in the drinking water in Mahar, India, 54 percent of all water drinkers would complain of the bitter taste. Among Brazilian Indians, an identical experiment would make little more than one percent aware of the admixture.2
They began to realize that what they needed to look at were genetic changes that came about based on geographic adaptations. Larson points out such quirks as an "inherited variant of the red coloring matter in blood" which was linked to malaria and found in almost no Europeans but in a great deal of people in central Africa. This new focus on region rather than specifically on race opened up huge new possibilities.

At the time the article was written, Larson reported, they were undertaking careful study of enzymatic responses to different drugs, making note of which ones could turn enzymes on and off.

They found, for example, that there was a gene which quickly inactivated a particular drug used against tuberculosis, and another which made for slow inactivaction; and that about fifty percent of Europeans and African-Americans were slow inactivators, compared to ten percent of the "Eskimo" and Japanese population tested. This suggested to them that they might eventually find a chemical to which certain populations were far more vulnerable. They became particularly interested in the possibilities of psychochemicals like LSD.

Of course, we now know - as the military undoubtedly knew then - that the CIA had been experimenting with LSD and other drugs for years. Combining these experiments with those done on enzyme inhibitors created the possibility that they could eventually, in Larson's words, "paralyze temporarily entire population centers without damage to homes and other structures." But, he admits, such science is in its infancy, and most of these possibilities were mere speculation.

"Ethnic" vs. "Racially Specific"

Much can be and has been said about the United States' (and for that matter the United Kingdom's) history of targeting populations of color in various power grabs and wars. The purpose of the military's research - both obvious and for the most part unspoken - is to enable more blatant "race"-based military attacks. But according to the military perspective, there is an even greater goal. As Larson reflects, "Forthcoming chemical agents with selective manstopping power will put into the hands of an assailant a weapon with which he cannot be attacked."

The statement that race is entirely imagined has become a very popular one in modern times as a justification for both liberal and conservative racial policies. It is certainly true that various cultures' categorizations of race at different times in history owe more to their own varied political and social biases than to any biological differences. The greatest apparent flaw in this deranged military dream is that the United States takes sometimes-justified pride in being a "melting pot." It seems at first glance that any attempt to target people based on race or ethnicity is bound to get some of our own soldiers as well.

Larson, in fact, leaves us with that possibility. He speculates that casualties might occur in one in ten soldiers involved in such an attack - but he also implies that those problems could be avoided by carefully choosing the people involved. Perhaps he knew at the time that this was a politically explosive path: after all this, as soon as he mentions military casualties, he suddenly begins writing as if this had all been a treatise on how to defend ourselves against such an attack from outside. All of a sudden, he is writing pleasantly about how

Friendly forces would discriminatingly use incapacitants in entangled situations to give friend and foe a short period of enforced rest to sort them out.
And then, terrifyingly:
By gentle persuasion, aided by psychochemicals, civilians in enemy cities could be reeducated.2
At the time, the study of how enzyme production was begun and regulated was barely a year old. At this writing, nearly thirty-five years have passed. Today a Colorado senator called for a hearing into the Army's delays in destroying its stockpiled chemical weapons5; meanwhile, the majority of the media's attention is directed toward wild speculations about what other countries might have. Elsewhere, others have speculated that HIV was actually engineered by our military, and point to its original emergence in African countries as a possible example of experimentation with such racial targeting. I do not know how or whether the military has developed these studies further, or what is even possible; I only know that our human knowledge of how the body works has increased a great deal, as has our United States government's ability to cloud its own actions and redirect our attention toward the identical behavior of others.

References:

  1. CypherPunks mailing list
  2. Military Review, November 1970: The scanned-in text of the Military Review article on ethnic weapons is online at the website for the US Army Command and General Staff College: http://www-cgsc.army.mil. However, they use javascript in such a way as to prohibit simply linking to the article. To get there, go to http://www-cgsc.army.mil/ and click "Military Review;" "Past Editions;" and then the filing cabinet icons next to "Military Review English Edition;" 1970-1979; 1970; "VOL L, NO. 11 - NOVEMBER 1970"; and finally, "01, ETHNIC WEAPONS. Or see the PDF at
  3. BioOne: Evaluation of Peracid Activated Organophosphates in Studies of Insecticide Resistance Conferred by Insensitive Acetylcholinesterases
  4. BioMatNet: Induction of pathogen resistance in fruit trees by transiently altering the flavonoid metabolism with specific enzyme inhibitors
  5. Miami Herald: Colorado Senator Wants Hearing into Chemical Demilitarization Delays, Budget

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