Be Afraid. But of What?
In the public debate about how to defend ourselves against biological weapons, the advance of biotechnology has been little discussed. Instead, most biologists and security analysts have debated the merits and shortcomings of Project BioShield, the Bush administration’s $5.6 billion plan to protect the U.S. population from biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear attack. After last year’s bioterrorism conference in DC, I called on Richard Ebright, whose Rutgers laboratory researches transcription initiation (the first step in gene expression), to hear why he so opposes the biodefense boom (in its current form) and why he doesn’t worry about terrorists’ synthesizing biological weapons.
“There are now more than 300 U.S. institutions with access to live bioweapons agents and 16,500 individuals approved to handle them,” Ebright told me. While all of those people have undergone some form of background check – to verify, for instance, that they aren’t named on a terrorist watch list and aren’t illegal aliens – it’s also true, Ebright noted, that “Mohammed Atta would have passed those tests without difficulty.”
Furthermore, Ebright told me, at the time of our interview, 97 percent of the researchers receiving funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study bioweapon agents had never been funded for such work before. Few of them, therefore, had any prior experience handling these pathogens; multiple incidents of accidental release had occurred during the previous two years.
Slipshod handling of bioweapons-level pathogens is scary enough, I conceded. But isn’t the proliferation of bioweaponeering expertise, I asked, more worrisome? After all, what reliable means do we have of determining whether somebody set out to be a molecular biologist with the aim of developing bioweapons?
“That’s the most significant concern,” Ebright agreed. “If al-Qaeda wished to carry out a bioweapons attack in the U.S., their simplest means of acquiring access to the materials and the knowledge would be to send individuals to train within programs involved in biodefense research.” Ebright paused. “And today, every university and corporate press office is trumpeting its success in securing research funding as part of this biodefense expansion, describing exactly what’s available and where.”
As for the threat of next-generation bioweapons agents, Ebright was dismissive: “To make an antibiotic-resistant bacterial strain is frighteningly straightforward, within reach of anyone with access to the material and knowledge of how to grow it.” However, he continued, further engineering – to increase virulence, to provide escape from vaccines, to increase environmental stability – requires considerable skill and a far greater investment of effort and time. “It’s clearly possible to engineer next-generation enhanced pathogens, as the former Soviet Union did. That there’s been no bioweapons attack in the United States except for the 2001 anthrax attacks – which bore the earmarks of a U.S. biodefense community insider – means ipso facto that no substate adversary of the U.S. has access to the basic means of carrying it out. If al-Qaeda had biological weapons, they would release them.”
Milton Leitenberg, the arms control specialist, goes a step further: he says because substate groups have not used biological weapons in the past, they are unlikely to do so in the near future. Such arguments are common in security circles. Yet for many contemplating the onrush of the life sciences and biotechnology, they have limited persuasiveness.
I suggested to Ebright that synthetic biology offered low-hanging fruit for a knowledgeable bioterrorist. He granted that there were scenarios with sinister potential. He allowed that biotechnology could make BioShield, which focuses on conventional select agents such as smallpox, anthrax, and Ebola, less relevant. Still, he maintained, “a conventional bioweapons agent can potentially be massively disruptive in economic costs, fear, panic, and casualties. The need to go to the next level is outside the incentive structure of any substate organization.”