TCS Daily

The Bioterror Gap

By Jack Birnbaum - April 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Chemical munitions are awful, and dirty bombs are scary; but in the end, in actual use, they're not any deadlier than fertilizer bombs or hijacked airliners (which, of course, are more than bad enough.) The only two kinds of weapons that could actually kill millions of people and in the process threaten the very continuation of our society are (1) nuclear, and (2) biological. We all understand the terrible power of the atomic nucleus unleashed, but not everyone has as good a feel for exactly why bioweapons are so threatening. It isn't just that they can cause grotesque disfigurement and prolonged, agonizing deaths; that is why they are repulsive. The reasons they go beyond that, to actually threaten civilization itself, are twofold.

First, they can be self-replicating. A chemical attack, or for that matter an assault utilizing biotoxins such as botulinum or non-contagious organisms like anthrax, requires delivery of the agent to the target population in a minimum amount and a certain form. It turns out not to be as easy as it first appears. Oh it's bad enough when it does happen, don't get me wrong, and the difficulty of the task is no comfort to the victims of Aum Shinrikyo or the Anthrax Mailer; but the stuff has to be in just the right form so people will inhale or ingest enough of it, and it tends to disperse to non-lethal levels quickly. In the end you can kill whomever you can manage to poison or expose, and that can be a bunch of people. Terrible enough, as I said, but not an existential threat to civilization. What is such a threat is a bioweapon that can reproduce itself and be passed from one victim to the next; in other words, one that can cause an epidemic. Imagine: you don't have to produce gobs of the stuff and figure out a way to expose everybody before it decays or disperses; you just have to introduce the disease into the population, perhaps with a few volunteers hanging around airports and shopping malls, and watch it spread.

But you can't just use any germ. You have to find one that the target population won't have much natural immunity to; that kills or causes serious damage; AND that has an incubation period during which it is infectious from one person to another, so that people can unsuspectingly spread it before they get too sick to move around. And if you're really good, you'll fix it so it's a disease that can't be treated, and can't be prevented in time with an existing vaccine. So that seems to be harder than it looks, too.

Except it isn't. A true story: There's a virus called "mousepox" (don't laugh) which, as you might suspect, infects mice and is related to the one that causes human smallpox. But unlike smallpox in humans, mice who get mousepox don't get very sick at all; it's not a big deal for them. More like a little summer cold. So a few years ago, some very good and very ethical geneticists, using techniques geneticists all over the world use every day, tried to solve a problem. They did it by adding the DNA code for a particular protein to the mousepox virus genome. They weren't trying to make the little rodents sicker; rather, they were just going to let this harmless mousepox virus carry the genes for this protein from mouse to mouse, and the protein was going to keep the mice from reproducing. See, there were too many mice running around the countryside making nuisances of themselves, and since the little critters weren't very reliable in picking up their birth control prescriptions from the pharmacy, this seemed like a clever and effective way to keep the number of mice down. Simple, elegant, and an example of what can be achieved with modern biotechnology.

Within a few days, every single mouse in the experiment was dead. Of mousepox.

So they tried it again, this time with mice that had been immunized with mousepox vaccine, which is usually very effective. Most of those mice died, too. These scientists had turned this mild little mouse disease into a killer, without even wanting to. Imagine what could be done by someone who did want to. (By the way, the gene they inserted is widely used in research, and is easily obtainable. Just order some over the internet, and watch your mailbox.)

So the second reason that bioweapons are civilization-threatening, the really scary one, is this: the technology and expertise to manipulate the genome of potential bioweapons is now widely available, well within the capabilities of any competent molecular biology grad student working in a university or industrial lab. It's not like trying to build a nuke, where you have to set up a massive secret program to create fissionable materials. If you know enough, and many people do, you can even do the germ work in a garage or basement lab. You can follow the leads you read about in the scientific journals. Not everything you try will work out; but it's not like you have to prove to the FDA that it works, or that you're trying to sell stock in your startup company. You can try stuff, and see what happens.

Science will probably get us out of this mess some time in the next decade or two. There has already been a lot of progress in the rapid identification of potential bioweapons. Soon we will progress from rapid sequencing the genes of an organism, which we can do now, to quickly determining the three-dimensional structure of its proteins; and from there we can eventually expect computer-aided design of effective medicines and vaccines. But we are certainly not there yet, as is no doubt obvious to you every time you have a cold and your doctor tells you there isn't any treatment for it.

So this is a dangerous time, this ten or twenty year gap. The knowledge and ability to modify microorganisms to make them more infectious, or to have longer contagious incubation periods, or to make them resistant to drugs and vaccines, is out there. It might be hit or miss, but it's there. Meanwhile, the ability to respond rapidly to a new or modified pathogen is a decade or two away. The danger is real. What to do?

We must deny our enemies any information they could use to develop doomsday bugs. I know, I know: scientific progress depends on the free, unfettered sharing of information. There will indeed be a cost to this secrecy; progress might be slowed on many fronts, even on biodefense itself. But the risks are too great. There are too many people out there who, for their own twisted reasons, wish to do harm to us and our civilization. We can't afford to be cavalier about giving them the methods to do it with. The federal government has set up a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, to begin work this summer, to supervise the dissemination of information that could be put to use by potential bioterrorists. Voices are being raised against the restrictions, threats of non-cooperation are being made by well-meaning but short-sighted scientists. They must not be listened to. Our survival might depend upon it.

Jack Birnbaum is a physician and the author of the recently published novel "The Winter of Visions and Forgetting." He recently wrote for TCS about "The Next Threat."


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