Mike the Mad Biologist

More on Needless Bioterrorism Hysteria

Recently, I wrote about how bioterrorism seems to freak people out needlessly. A Man With a Ph.D. makes some other good points:

Biological terrorism is scary because it is easy to imagine doomsday while few really understand the difficulty of working with any sort of pathogen. Or even simple bacteria.

Governments around the world have spent billions using experts in the best labs tn order to weaponize pathogenic agents. It is an extremely difficult problem. Things like how do you make sure it kills the ones you want instead of your own people come into play.

A home hacker would not be able to easily work with a deadly pathogen. Because they are deadly.

Really special care must be used with them. Especially since many only grow in human cells, requiring very expensive, specialized equipment and costly growth medium. Home hackers are working with easy, simple things like bacteria that are not deadly in themselves.

How about putting a ‘bad’ gene in to a safe bacteria? First, few things in life are that easy. It often takes many different protein products to evade our immune system and allow a pandemic to proceed.

Trying to get some Ebola gene working in bacteria sounds scary. But putting any new gene into a bacteria like E. coli almost always makes that bacteria much less likely to survive in the wild. Bacteria have been selected in nature to replicate rapidly. Anything that hampers that is usually quickly lost.

And I liked the conclusion:

But I think it is much more likely that a devastating pandemic will come from our intense interactions with livestock, such as large factory farms, and other animals (i.e. zoonotic) than from something specifically created.

Actually, other than the anthrax attacks, the largest bioterrorism attack in the U.S. was when a cult in Oregon released Salmonella into a buffet. Interestingly, no one realized that this was an attack for many months–people thought it was just ordinary food contamination.

‘Ordinary’ bugs kill us just fine; we don’t need to go looking under the bed.


  1. #1 JThompson
    June 4, 2009

    My money for our next devastating pandemic would be on woo peddlers convincing people vaccines cause autism and don’t work to boot.

  2. #2 Lance B
    June 4, 2009

    @JThompson, Oh, you mean like the anti-measles vaccine people in Britain that are getting 30+ kids killed/year because their parents refuse to get the immunized…..

  3. #3 Mike Olson
    June 5, 2009

    Mike, you’re going to have to stop being so rational. With your calm explanations, pointing out the false basis of paranoia and alarmist reactions…no one will read your stuff. : D. Nicely presented.