Is biotech a security problem?

A Reuters piece under the headline, "Biotechnology Boom Raises Security Fears: Mild Diseases Could Be Turned Into Deadly Ones, Experts Caution" we see the biotech Frankenstein/terrorist bogeyman raised once again by "experts" in the area at a scientific conference in Casablanca. The weekend conference was run by a tiny group (budget of less than $250K) with a big name, the International Council for the Life Sciences (ICLS). Their sole mission is biological biosecurity, so it is understandable that their conclusion is that this is a big problem. But is it?

On the surface the proposition is plausible. Rapid advances in biotechnology now allow things to be done that could not be done previously, or allow them to be done much more quickly. Biotech is a largely unregulated industry and who knows what goes on in academic laboratories. The picture ILSI paints is frightening:

"There are so many advances in bacteriology and gene sequencing leading to the possibility of designing genes -- that is what is driving the concern," said Tim Trevan of the International Council for the Life Sciences (ICLS).

Organisms could be genetically manipulated to defeat vaccines, mild diseases could be turned into deadly ones and lethal viruses and bacteria might be created from scratch.

Equipment such as micro-reactors, flow reactors and disposable reactors to produce useable volumes of complex molecules were not even available 10 years ago.

"You want something very infectious if you aim to bring down society," said Trevan. "Whether you kill people or incapacitate them it doesn't really matter, as long as there is a major effect. This could all theoretically be engineered genetically." (Tom Pfeiffer, Reuters)

There as always been a laboratory to defeat vaccines and take mild infections and turn them into deadly ones. It's called Nature and it is very efficient. It is also a very secure laboratory. We don't know most of Nature's secrets yet, particularly the ones that make a bug dangerous. After a lot of intensive investigation by some of the best laboratories in the world we still don't know what makes a flu virus transmissible or especially virulent. Nature knows, but we don't. Now suppose we decide that this is dangerous knowledge. Are we going to start putting up barriers to the dissemination of knowledge about basic flu science? Because if we are, I will give you an ironclad guarantee that it will make us less safe. I've seen too much good work done by scientists sponsored by the military where a General decides that it's too important to tell anybody about. They are usually (always?) wrong about this. I note that the head of ILSI was an inspector in Iraq who thought Saddam had chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, too. But that's another story.

The idea that there are all sorts of people out there wanting to "bring down society" (What does that even mean) also doesn't make sense. Terrorists use terror weapons for political ends, to bring about some desired event or action. Unleashing a disease that appears to be of natural origin wouldn't do that. It might create terror and chaos, but it couldn't be sure of causing any particular action and would have significant blowback potential on the perpetrators. Perhaps the real motive in promoting this scenario is to prevent a PR blowback, not a biological one:

"If there is a serious, catastrophic incident involving the use of biotechnology, that will hold up the science like Chernobyl did with nuclear," said Taylor. "That's why we need to worry now."

I'm not sure why a possible effect on biotech is something we need to worry about especially, but it is unlikely in any event. The anthrax did have a catastrophic effect but didn't do much harm to biotech and in fact gave a stimulus to the bioterrorism industry, which exploited it for everything it could, despite the fact that the weaponized anhrax came out of one of those labs. The actual situation is the one unwittingly uttered by one of the "experts":

"The thinking is out there and it is naive to assume some people are not exploiting available technology," said Taylor.

That's exactly what terrorists are doing. They aren't fooling around with untested science that is extremely difficult and not likely to succeed. They are exploiting available terror technology, which is frighteningly abundant: guns and bombs. Cheap, effective, accessible. But apparently no one wants to regulate them.


More like this

We've written a lot about US high containment laboratories for potential biowarfare agents and extremely dangerous pathogens for which there is no vaccine or cure. But the UK likes to build these labs, too. In fact they have five of them. Where? Nah, nah. The UK's Health and Safety Executive is not…
The Hungarians are miffed because the UK is trying to pin the blame on them for the recent bird flu outbreak. They think blaming Hungary for the virus is the easy way out. It isn't. What it implicates is that the vaunted biosecurity firewall for developed country poultry producers is porous.…
The folks at ScienceDebate2008 pushed hard during the primaries to have the candidates address science policy. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum from Scienceblogs The Intersection were among the leaders in this movement. They didn't succeed in getting a debate then, but now with the field down to…
As I've noted, in places like Canada and Europe, nuclear energy has been successfully reframed as an important "middle way" compromise solution in the debate over what to do about global warming. Now a report out today from the Oxford Research Group casts doubt on the potential of nuclear. From…

Excellent post!


I would worry and be very vigilant about the unique economic consequences as a result of a Foot and Mouth outbreak in North America.

While I share your caution around creating 'security risks' where none exist, and overly burdening the scientific community with regulation, there are a number of questions surrounding emerging technologies that are troublesome.

The creation of a hypervirulent (vaccine defeating) mousepox virus through the introduction of an IL-4 expressing gene is a good example of potentially dangerous science. Expanding the host range of a bat SARS virus to include mice as was reported in PNAS last year is another. The resurrection of the 1918 flu, long since naturally extinct, another case.

All of these had purported medical benefits. But they also create access to an organism which has the potential for high levels of destruction. Now these organisms are unlikely to be used/created by the 'terrorist from central casting', but as USAMRIID shows they can be used by disgruntled or unbalanced scientists themselves.

Regulation of these technologies may not be the answer, in fact, I would argue that it most certainly is not. Yet, that doesn't diminish the responsibility of scientists to discuss the ethical/security implications of their work. It is neither helpful, nor ethical, to suggest that science should be left to its own devices pursuing 'truths' regardless of their impact on society.

One has to remember that life science has no 'Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists', despite that fact that it deals with phenomena which are potentially as dangerous. Groups like ICLS play an important awareness-raising role and, I suspect, would generally never favour regulations where the clear collective action of scientists could do the same or better job.

Rieux: I agree and disagree. I am of the view that reconstructing the 1918 virus was a worthwhile thing to do because of what we can learn about pandemic flu and what makes it. I do agree that leaving the ethics of science to scientists is not a good thing to do, but this post wasn't about the general topic but this specific topic. While there is a possible scenario where harmful things can be created in the lab (in fact it happens whenever there is a lab accident), the tech fix for this is invariably worse than the problem if it involves obstructing what most people would consider beneficial or potentially beneficial knowledge (which is most medical research). I'm for discussions of social responsibility among scientists. In fact I've been part of that movement for 40 years and was active in the recombinant DNA debate on that subject. But this post is about this subject, not the subject of social responsibility in general.

I wrote a post the day before about the proliferation of high containment labs that goes to the point of making access to terrorists of agent they could never have access to (in fact I've written about this many times, here). But bioweapons research is research with military or counter-military intent that will have unintended consequences regarding making us safer -- for reasons you identify.


I think you really underestimate the changes that have occurred in molecular biology within the last few years. Creating novel constructs used to require large amounts of time and money. Importantly, creating such constructs required access to the original nucleic acid one was attempting to modify. This is no longer true. I can now copy and paste DNA sequences on my computer to create whatever construct I wish. I can then email the sequence to a company that will send me back a synthesised construct to my exact specifications. Neither they nor I require the original nucleic acid, sequence is sufficient. Google "DNA synthesis" and you will be amazed by what you find. With this approach, it would be possible to create a virus with whatever genes you choose. For example, people no longer require access to the polio virus to make polio virus. Think about that and it apply that thought to other viruses.

Your suggestion that only people who stand to benefit from bioterrorism funding think that it is a threat is inaccurate. Many molecular biologists, including Craig Venter, understand what can be done with the new technologies and very concerned about what may happen in the near future as a result.

I know that you think a lot of bioterrorism money has been wasted. I agree with you about that. However, just because knuckleheads have wasted bioterrorism money doesn't mean that only knuckleheads think bioterrorism is a real threat.

Although we do not understand completely how nucleic acid sequences translate into transmission and lethality of viruses, it is not accurate to imply that we don't know anything. We know a lot and can make reasonable guesses which, thanks to the new technology, we can easily put into practice cheaply and quickly. These experimental viruses could be tested in animals to confirm hypotheses.

As regards blowback, this limits the range of potential bioweapons to one, imo: influenza. A weaponised H5N1 virus could easily be constructed that would be indistinguishable from the natural ones. The purpose would be depopulation of the earth in order to grab scarce resources.

I believe this strategy has already been discussed by the Chinese government. Anyone who thinks such an evil is to great to be considered needs to read some history.

I agree with Monotreme on this. I think, like many other biological scientists, you are whistling past the graveyard.

The capabilities are changing fast. You mention the idea that proliferation of biocontainment labs increases the risk that a nasty person will get hold of a dangerous agent. It might. But new abilities in synthesizing longish DNA bits are much, much more dangerous. Ebola is only what, 19 kb? A recipe for reconstituting the virus from the nucleotide sequence has been published (part of study looking at effects of site-directed mutagenesis of the original sequence).

You also imply that the anyone who wants to talk about what a small number of very bad people might do with a pathogen (engineered or not) are always bent on clamping down with secrecy. Not all of them are, and I've spoken with many who understand that won't work. Instead, they want to get the scientific community to think about what the possibilities are.

Please think about this one some more. It's not so easy to write off as mere scare mongering.

Mono, Rob: You both raise serious issues which I should address. I'll likely to it in another post soon (I am currently taking part in a "strategic planning" exercise, complete with flip charts), and this takes some reflection. Thanks for the link. Will read with interest.

I am currently taking part in a "strategic planning" exercise, complete with flip charts

Didn't anyone tell you that you shouldn't use the phrase "flip charts", as it may be offensive to certain islanders of southeast Asian descent? You musta missed the requisite diversity training.My condolences on your attendance at such an adventure.


Then, you need to look another "strategic planning" by ICA ( Institute of Cultural Affairs)

full of participation, facilitation and motivation. It is indeed the program of life process. Look at it, at least one more time. :-).