That’s surely not what the Belgian Paul Janssen originally had planned when he developed his potent anesthetic about 50 years ago: Fentanyl. Because a descendant of the opioid presumably served the Russian government in 2002 to free hostages in a Moscow theater held by Chechen insurgents. The alarming result: Of those nearly 800 kidnapped people 129 died as a result of the gas.
Incapacitate and pacify instead of killing
Not the only case known where medical remedies are being turned into a weapon of war against terrorists or public enemies. “Incapacitating agents” are agents which do not kill but “only” incapacitate physical activities. In the sixties, Fentanyl was further developed into a “knock-out gas” in the United States and the UK. Only when the danger of a fatal outcome – also for the own troops – seemed not calculable any more, both nations stopped further research in this field. Since this application eight years ago and according to reports from weapon technology congresses, it is undisputed though, that at least Russia and also Chechen research laboratories continue working on the opioid.
Undisputed as well is the development of new biological ”non-lethal“ systems subtly intervening in the processes of the central nervous system. For example two years ago a report was published by the US National Academies of Science, its tile: “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies“. With increasing knowledge about the metabolic pathways of cognitive functions of the brain, it was possible to develop according antagonists to interrupt those. By means of nanotechnology it might be possible to overcome the blood-brain-barrier thus planting “Trojan horses“ into the brain. During the European symposium on non-lethal weapons which is organized by the Fraunhofer-Institute for Chemical Technology every two years in Ettlingen/Germany, scientists of the Institute for Experimental Medicine in Prague reported in 2007 about experiments on macaques. By using combinations of different agents they succeeded to take the disposition for violence from the little monkeys. With those substances called “calmatives” by the military, terrorists and other despised aggressors can be “pacified”. As it seems, they are working currently on the possibility to apply those substances per aerosol as well.
Non-lethal: Deadly for ten percent
According to the NATO-definition, non-lethal weapons are supposed to incapacitate the enemy or allure him from his intentions and all this with “a bare possibility for a deadly outcome or a permanent handicap”. From the view of the Chechen experts and in accordance with experiments with volunteers and monkeys, this works best with a mixture of the benzodiazepine, with Medetomidin, an a2-adrenoceptor-agonist, and Ketamin. Supposedly, the “immobilization is nearly fully reversible“. But whoever wants to incapacitate about 99% of the affected persons with a substance with the therapeutic quotient (the ratio from lethal to effective dose) of 1000, hazards – according to calculations by mathematicians – the consequences that nine percent of the “target objects” die. The agents of the Chechen labs have an average quotient between five and ten. In Moscow the death rate during application of gas was at about 16 percent. No wonder that many professionals are talking about pure cynicism when it comes to “non-lethal” weapons.
Exterminated, but still threatening
But completely different biological weapons are – just like decades ago – in the center of intensive research. Officially exterminated long time ago, pox viruses either still spread fear or are an option for the strategists in the ministries of defence – depending on the point of view. In 2006 a British journalist succeeded to order in the internet all necessary DNA fragments to build the virus. A handful of countries, among them the US in particular, but also Germany, have arranged for the vaccines against the virus. One of the most relevant manufacturers is the German-Danish biotech company Bavarian-Nordic. Since the vaccine is about to enter its concluding phase-III study, it is not aadmitted by the authorities yet. Nonetheless the US government has given the company orders worth more than 680 million Dollars. For internal use, the vaccine made of a modified vaccinia virus is delivered already; currently they are working on a freeze-dried version. In accordance with this successful business made with fear, Bavarian Nordic will start working on clinical trials of an Anthrax vaccine hoping for a similarly good deal.
As ordered: Re-growing fingers or an enemy seized with panic
Everyone wounded in combat or even losing limbs might have much better chances in the future to return recovered to a normal life or to the battlefield. Stephen Badylak at Pittsburgh University for example, supported by the US Army, has developed a therapeutic powder containing extra-cellular matrix material from porcine urinary bladders which activates adult stem cells. “Pixie-Dust” supposedly made missing finger tips re-grow up to one centimetre in its original form in finger amputees. The medical world though is rather critical about this report. The research organization of the US defence ministry DARPA for example supports researchers in Texas with 10 million Dollars. They are trying to transfer the metabolism of wounded soldiers with hydrogen sulphide into some kind of “stand-by” mode, similar to hibernation. The target is – according to the researchers – to sustain the run back metabolism with reduced oxygen demand a minimum of six hours even with a larger blood loss.
It is not always necessary to incapacitate the enemy to obtain advantages. Already five years ago, Swiss scientists published that the neuro-hormone oxytocin spread via aerosol supports the trusting of the counterpart. That would be another way to “pacify” the enemy. Perhaps it might be possible in the future to evoke panic, depression or mental aberration in the attacker – according to requirements and by soldiers permanently awake and efficient by brain doping and communicating with each other by encoded brain signals. In an article published in the renowned scientific journal “Nature”, Malcolm Dando of the department for peace research in Bradford in England calls for not just invoking politicians. Also scientists should consider during making the experiment that his or her discovery might not only serve the healing of diseases when it comes to the topic of “militarization” of new research results.