TCS Daily

Biowarfare and Bioterror: The Future Is Now

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Since the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's biological-weapons threat, people have breathed easier about the threat of bioterrorism and biological warfare. But recent developments suggest that this relaxation is unwarranted. Indeed, there's considerable evidence that we should be much more afraid than we are, or have been.

The first such warning comes from technology writer Paul Boutin, who recently set out to discover just how easy it would be for an amateur to create a dangerous biological weapon. The answer — as the title to his piece, "Biowar for Dummies" suggests — is "pretty easy, really." Instead of lethal genes, he inserted genes for fluorescence. Boutin writes:

I hadn't set foot in a lab since high school. Could I learn to build a bioweapon? What would I need? What would it cost? Could I set up shop without raising suspicions? And, most important[ly], would it work? . . .

Eventually, we fumble our way to a plastic dish full of translucent goop. If I'd been working on smallpox—and really committed to my cause—this would have been the part where I'd inject a lab animal with the stuff to see if it got sick. Then I'd give myself a dose and head off on a days-long, multi-airport, transnational suicide run. But it was just yeast. Set on top of a black light, it glowed an eerie bright blue, like a Jimi Hendrix poster. My creation ... lived.

Boutin's a smart guy, but he's no Dr. Evil. If he can get this far, others (more skilled, more committed, more, um, evil) can go farther, faster.

And they won't have to start from scratch. As a troubling new article in Technology Review demonstrates, they'll have a lot of old Soviet bioweapons work to build on. The story — researched and double-checked by Technology Review over a period of 14 months — suggests that there's a lot to work with. What's more, the threat isn't just the usual suspects: "weaponized" anthrax, smallpox, ebola and plague. It turns out that Soviet scientists were working, with some success, on considerably creepier stuff. We're talking about pathogens that cause the body to attack its own nervous system by generating antibodies against nerves' myelin sheaths; producing a virulent, pathogenic form of Multiple Sclerosis; or bugs that produce endorphins, keeping a population sedated, or perhaps even genuinely in love with Big Brother. And while the Soviets had to work hard to get anywhere on this kind of thing a couple of decades ago, what was hard for them is easier now.

"That's the essence of our story," said Jason Pontin, editor of Technology Review, in an interview Sunday afternoon. (I got an advance copy, but you should be able to read it here by the time this column is published.) "That whatever the Soviet Union did at enormous difficulty and expense, in principle can be done cheaply and easily with modern technology." What's more, it's technology that is "unregulated and not easy to regulate -- these are the common tools of biotechnology" today.

It's important, says Pontin, to distinguish between two kinds of threats. The first is the threat of biological terrorism: Individuals or small groups, brewing up deadly plagues in a basement. With modern technology, this is pretty easy to do, as Boutin demonstrated.

"If a determined malefactor wants to create a pathogen," Pontin says, "he can." The equipment is cheaply and readily available used on the Internet, the expertise is found in countless Ph.D candidates and senior lab assistants, and the basic feedstocks and reagents are commercially available without much trouble. The results are "scary and deadly, but not freaky and science fictional." They're also hard to counter. Some experts have suggested paying close attention to researchers in the field, or perhaps registering protein synthesizers and DNA sequencers, but those approaches seem more likely to add layers of bureaucracy to nonthreatening projects than to stop actual threats: Look at the unimpressive record of the International Atomic Energy Authority in controlling nuclear weaponry through similar mechanisms.

Scary and deadly is bad enough, but the "freaky and science-fictional" threat is worse, if perhaps more subtle: Pathogens tailored for particular ethnic groups. Diseases that only attack children. Psychotropic pathogens that affect people's minds — grossly, via schizophrenia or tranquilization, or subtly, by imbuing love for Big Brother. As Pontin notes, this kind of thing isn't currently within the capabilities of terrorists or small groups, but it's something we can expect from nation-states. We've never seen a technological revolution that somebody didn't try to weaponize, and here, "the revolution in biological science will provide enormous temptations to nation-states. And the stuff that nation-states will be able to do is really scary. It provides enormous possibilities for coercion and oppression, quite possibly for the most positive-seeming reasons."

The Technology Review story is troubling, but it's no huge surprise. I've been writing about this stuff for years, and while some of the Soviet research was news to me, the overall story wasn't. But Pontin reports that a lot of people in the national security establishment didn't want the article (which he describes as "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of their research and discovery regarding the potential threats) published because they didn't think it was a good idea to call attention to the subject, especially since nobody really knows what to do about the threat anyway.

Pontin disagrees, noting that the threat is not exactly secret (see this report from the NAS), even if it's underappreciated. What's more, we can't very well respond to the threat until we take it seriously.

I think that's right. You can't address a threat you're not aware of, and the threat of biological weaponry has receded from public consciousness; meanwhile, most of what the government is doing is based on countering known threats like anthrax, not on preparing for new dangers.

Both Ray Kurzweil and Senator Bill Frist have called for a "Manhattan Project" level of urgency toward biodefense, with an eye toward developing generic antiviral drugs, rapid-response vaccine production, and even more advanced techniques, yet unknown, for responding rapidly to new pathogens (whether natural or artificial in origin). This new article from Technology Review would seem to underscore the importance of such an approach. Pontin estimates that with that kind of an effort, effective responses might be a decade away. That may be soon enough. Let's hope, anyway.


TCS Daily Archives