The conference’s other speakers focused on the boom in U.S. biodefense spending since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anthrax scare that same year. The bacteriologist Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, fretted that the enormous increase in grants to study three of the category A bacterial agents (that is, anthrax, plague, and tularemia) drained money from basic research to fight existing epidemics. Ebright (who’d persuaded 758 other scientists to sign a letter of protest to Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health) also charged that by promiscuously disseminating bioweaponeering knowledge and pathogen specimens to newly minted biodefense labs around the United States, “the NIH was funding a research and development arm of al-Qaeda.” Another speaker, Milton Leitenberg, introduced as one of the grand old men of weapons control, was more splenetic. The current obsession with bioterrorism, the rumpled, grandfatherly Leitenberg insisted, was nonsense; the record showed that almost all bioweaponeering had been done by state governments and militaries.
Such arguments are not without merit. So why do Serguei Popov’s accounts of what the Russians assayed in the esoteric realm of genetically engineered bioweapons, using pre-genomic biotech, matter now?
They matter because the Russians’ achievements tell us what is possible. At least some of what the Soviet bioweaponeers did with difficulty and expense can now be done easily and cheaply. And all of what they accomplished can be duplicated with time and money. We live in a world where gene-sequencing equipment bought secondhand on eBay and unregulated biological material delivered in a FedEx package provide the means to create biological weapons.
Build or Buy?
There is growing scientific consensus that biotechnology – especially, the technology to synthesize ever larger DNA sequences – has advanced to the point that terrorists and rogue states could engineer dangerous novel pathogens.
In February, a report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies entitled “Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences” argued, “In the future, genetic engineering and other technologies may lead to the development of pathogenic organisms with unique, unpredictable characteristics.” Pondering the possibility of these recombinant pathogens, the authors note, “It is not at all unreasonable to anticipate that [these] biological threats will be increasingly sought after…and used for warfare, terrorism, and criminal purposes, and by increasingly less sophisticated and resourced individuals, groups, or nations.” The report concludes, “Sooner or later, it is reasonable to expect the appearance of “bio-hackers.’”
Malefactors would have more trouble stealing or buying the classical agents of biological warfare than synthesizing new ones. In 2002, after all, a group of researchers built a functioning polio virus, using a genetic sequence off the Internet and mail-order oligonucleotides (machine-synthesized DNA molecules no longer than about 140 bases each) from commercial synthesis companies. At the time, the group leader, Eckard Wimmer of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, warned that the technology to synthesize the much larger genome of variola major – that is, the deadly smallpox virus – would come within 15 years. In fact, it arrived sooner: December 2004, with the announcement of a high-throughput DNA synthesizer that could reproduce smallpox’s 186,000-odd bases in 13 runs.