The Trench


DURC – a chemical angle

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Dual-use research of concern—often referred to by its ugly acronym, DURC—is another one of those moronic concepts to have entered the disarmament / arms control discourse as a diversion from real disarmament questions. Of concern to whom? Who defines the dual-use characteristics of research? Who defines the threat? And why the heck should we be scared again of any new development? Anyway, the term is also tautological: Is there dual-use research not of concern?

The term arose in the biological field: genetic manipulations of pathogens to better understand possible mutations might increase infectivity among humans. The risk of escape from laboratories or laboratory accidents drive the concerns about this type of research. Initially the threat was presented as one of catastrophic terrorism. Now the debate has abated somewhat, but global health concerns continue to animate discussions. Meanwhile, the DURC label has stuck. So questions animating debates under the banner of biological weapons control are whether research can be published in full or whether scientists should apply for an export license to have their results printed in overseas scientific journals.

Interestingly the label’s use seems to be limited to the life sciences. How about medical research contributing to the development of an incapacitating chemical weapon?

Nitrous oxide is better known as ‘laughing gas’. Innocuous enough, it would seem. Only those addicted to it not only get high, they may also die. In Antiquity, Hannibal supposedly vanquished the numerically superior fleet of King Eumenes of Pergamum in 191 BCE by flinging earthenware pots with nitrous oxide onto his opponent’s ships. The narrator’s metaphor used to hide his unfamiliarity with contemporary advanced chemistry was ‘venomous snakes’. However, such creatures do not habitually provoke ‘laughter’ or ‘fill’ vessels. The Phoenicians, owners of advanced knowledge of chemistry, were aware of the agent’s effects.  Having also mastered sophisticated mining techniques, they would have observed the impact of nitrous oxide produced by a controlled underground explosion on humans. Its manufacture does not involve a too difficult chemical process.

This is not how laughter might be provoked in future chemical warfare operations. Nitrous oxide is commonly applied in surgery in conjunction with anaesthetics or to maintain a patient’s unconsciousness as the effects of anaesthetics wear off. The compound instigates a powerful pattern of electrical firing that sweeps across the front of the brain as slowly as once every 10 seconds, according to research at MIT. This pattern is consistent with deep sleep. As one scientist put it, ‘nitrous oxide has control over the brain in ways no other drug does.’

Any thought of using nitrous oxide as an incapacitant still lies in the future. Even with a continuous flow under controlled circumstances, the slow waves merely last for about three minutes at most. However, as one of the researchers speculated, ‘if the pure, powerful slow waves produced by nitrous oxide could somehow be maintained at a steady state—as opposed to disappearing in mere minutes—then nitrous oxide might be used as a potent anaesthetic from which rapid recovery would be possible’. The MIT team is now systematically studying the electroencephalogram signatures and behavioural effects of all of the principal anaesthetics and anaesthetic combinations.

Is it too weird to think of advanced, government-sponsored research into non-lethal, incapacitating agents? Anti-terrorism operations already seek out the grey area between (prohibited) chemical warfare and (non-prohibited) law enforcement. Rescued hostages and captured terrorists may not come out laughing after an intervention by special forces, but their quick recovery after evacuation makes for a darned better sight than scores of dead as the consequence of other types of powerful anaesthetics.

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