More immediately, no one has a good idea about what should be done. Some scientists hope to arrest the spread of bioweapons knowledge. Rutgers’s Richard Ebright wants to reverse what he believes to be counterproductive in the funding of biodefense. More dramatically, Harvard’s George Church is calling for all DNA synthesizers to be registered internationally. “This wouldn’t be like regulating guns, where you just give people a license and let them do whatever they want,” he says. “Along with the license would come responsibilities for reporting.” Furthermore, Church believes that just as all DNA synthesizers should be registered, so should any molecular biologists researching the select agents or the human immune system response to pathogens. “Nobody’s forced to do research in those areas. If someone does, then they should be willing to have a very transparent, spotlighted research career,” Church says.
But enactment of Church’s proposals would represent an unprecedented regulation of science. Worse, not all nations would comply. For instance, Russian biologists, some of whom are known to have worked at Biopreparat, have reportedly trained molecular-biology students at the Pasteur Institute in Tehran.
More fundamentally, arresting the progress of biological-weapons research is probably impractical. Biological knowledge is all one, and therapies cannot be easily distinguished from weapons. For example, a general trend in biomedicine is to use viral vectors in gene therapy.
Robert Carlson, senior scientist in the Genomation Lab and the Microscale Life Sciences Center in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, believes there are two options. On the one hand, we can clamp down on biodefense research, stunting our ability to respond to biological threats. Alternatively, we can continue to push the boundaries of what is known about how pathogens can be manipulated – spreading expertise in building biological systems, for better and for worse, through experiments like Buller’s assembly of a mousepox-IL4 recombinant – so we are not at a mortal disadvantage. One day, we must hope, technology will suggest an answer.
Serguei Popov has lived with these questions longer than most. When I asked him what could be done, he told me, “I don’t know what kind of behavior or scientific or political measures would guarantee that the new biology won’t hurt us.” But the vital first step, Popov said, was for scientists to overcome their reluctance to discuss biological weapons. “Public awareness is very important. I can’t say it’s a solution to this problem. Frankly, I don’t see any solution right now. Yet first we have to be aware.”
Mark Williams is a contributing writer to Technology Review.