Letters from our readers.
The State of Bioweapons
Mark Williams’s piece on the dangers of biotechnology is an excellent summary of the current tensions (“The Knowledge,” March/April 2006). Today’s scientists have the responsibility to consider the possible abuse of biotechnological advance for hostile purposes, but they need not reinvent the wheel. In my 2005 book, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, I analyze the different historical restraints that have prevented the use of biological weapons despite nearly a century of available technology and development. Why the large state programs, with the exception of the Japanese from 1940 to 1943, refrained from using germ weapons is a deep subject. I agree with Williams that the threat of advances in this area of science is real and that scientists need to be more aware of potential dangers, as well as threats to openness in research. The multiple layers of secrecy surrounding the state programs of the last century (and some in this century) increased risks to civilians. What members of the public do not know can hurt them. Jeanne Guillemin
MIT Security Studies Program
You conclude your excellent explanation of why you decided to publish “The Knowledge” by stating, “Our best hope of countering the threat is to invest in research that will suggest a technological solution” (“From the Editor,” March/April 2006). I could not disagree more. We are surrounded by serious problems for which technological solutions exist but are not employed. One needs only to consider how our dependence on petroleum might be reduced simply by raising the fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Our best hope of countering the threat of bioweapons is to invest in research that will suggest a social solution.
In her essay about the cover story [for more on this, see next page], MIT’s Allison Macfarlane doesn’t rebut Williams’s piece so much as point out that there are uncertainties about the ability of terrorist groups to create and to weaponize biological agents, as well as huge uncertainty about their lethality (“Notebooks,” March/April 2006). I agree with this. But think of the problem this way: suppose one were to ask, What is the probability that a terrorist group could marshal the resources to design and build large jet aircraft for the purpose of suicide bombing? Wrong question. Terrorists are more likely to procure materials from state laboratories than they are to synthesize, say, smallpox by themselves. (This was true of the way the Soviets obtained atomic weapons and the Chinese acquired missile technology.) Therefore the big question is, What kind of bioweapons work is going on in the advanced nations?
Williams writes that even if we enacted George Church’s proposal to register all DNA synthesizers and force certain classes of researchers to work transparently, “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.” It is important to note that educating students in molecular biology is by no means a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) by itself. Moreover, even though the Soviet Union violated the BWC by developing bioweapons on its own territory, there has never been any known transfer of pathogens or weapons technology to third parties. Thus we have no reason to claim that Russia is a suspect country. Today, Russia is an active member of the BWC, and it renounced any bioweapons development activities in 1992. The problem of noncompliance is a very important one and is a major obstacle in the way of international implementation of the control mechanisms, but most experts would agree that this threat is not coming from Russia.
There is a short-term risk that, as we get up to speed with biotechnologies, we’ll make honest mistakes, and a perpetual chance the technology will be abused. But it’s important to keep in mind that for every person who would choose to do something destructive, there are tens of thousands that would do something more economically or personally satisfying. These technolo-gies will accelerate life science capa-bility across the board, creating a rising tide unlike anything seen since the early 1970s, when recombinant DNA tools materialized. Back then, we also feared the unknown. Despite doomsayers, we pushed ahead and never looked back. We didn’t destroy the world with gene splicing, but we did change our understanding of biology for the better and made advanced diagnostics and therapeutics that help millions.
In “The Knowledge,” the cover story of our March/April 2006 issue, we mistakenly called the varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus a poxvirus. It is a herpesvirus.
In the March/April 2006 issue, we invited Allison M. Macfarlane, a research associate in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group at MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, to write an essay in reaction to our cover story. After the story was published, Serguei Popov, its main subject, wrote us a dissenting note of his own. Popov is a professor at the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at George Mason University and spent nearly 20 years developing genetically engineered biological weapons for the Soviet Union. Here is Popov’s letter.
I just cannot comprehend how denying the threat of biological weapons could help us change the situation for the better, as Allison Macfarlane implies. She writes that during World War II, Japanese attacks with plague on Chinese cities had limited effect. But by the use of a notoriously primitive technique, more than 200,000 Chinese were killed. Macfarlane further writes that germ “weaponization” is a difficult task; the 1979 anthrax accident in Sverdlovsk, Russia, she notes, killed only 66. What a conclusion! The spores, which escaped from a military facility, had been weaponized so effectively that a minuscule amount caused more than 300 deaths, according to unofficial accounts, without special dispersion means or careful consideration of environmental conditions. Instead of weaponization, the Rajneeshees cult chose a primitive and effective way to put down at least 750 people with Salmonella typhimurium. The reason that nobody died is because this pathogen rarely kills. Had Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever, been used in the salad bars, people would almost certainly have died. Macfarlane should have also known that the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan failed because the cult used a harmless vaccine variety of anthrax bacterium. This only confirms Williams’s argument: knowledge is a critical factor. So how difficult would it be for terrorists to acquire weaponi-zation secrets? Anthrax letter attacks show that for some terrorists, the technology is not a hurdle. Have SARS, HIV, and the flu had to be weaponized in order to cause pandemics? Mark Williams asks another question: what if such viruses were reëngineered to become even more dangerous? I think we all know the answer.
Allison Macfarlane responds:
The issue is not how awful particular pathogens can be; surely this is well known. The issue is that biological weapons are now considered “weapons of mass destruction” in the mainstream media and in documents such as the Nuclear Posture Review, which states that if attacked with such weapons, the United States may respond with nuclear weapons. If the U.S. were to suffer an attack similar to the anthrax attacks of 2001, or even one in which hundreds died, would this justify the use of nuclear weapons?
Is it reasonable to include biological and chemical weapons in the same category as nuclear weapons, when our predictions of bioweapons capabilities are based on incomplete data sets?
One result of equating nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons under the category “weapons of mass destruction” is that funding for defense against these weapons is out of proportion to the threats. In fiscal year 2005, the federal government’s request for biodefense spending was $7.6 billion. In comparison, U.S. spending for protection against the use of nuclear weapons on the U.S. (largely by securing former Soviet nuclear weapons and materials) was less than $2 billion.
As Professor Popov says, what’s important is the knowledge. And in the case of U.S. policy, there is a lack of knowledge that informs the equating of nuclear and biological weapons. This could prove fatal one day.
How to contact us
Write Technology Review, One Main Street,
7th Floor, Cambridge MA 02142
Please include your address, telephone number, and e-mail address. Letters may be edited for both clarity and length.
Couldn't make it to EmTech Next to meet experts in AI, Robotics and the Economy?Go behind the scenes and check out our video