I've been a skeptic of the bio-terror threat for a long time, now. The weapons seemed awfully finicky, compared to old-fashioned explosives. And the learning curve to acquiring these bugs and viruses looked steep, for a relatively low-tech operation like Al Qaeda.Now, I'm less sure. In this month's Technology Review there's an article on the spread of bioweapons gear and know-how that's downright spooky, even to skeptics like me.It starts with the Soviet bioweapons effort:
When the program was founded in the 1970s, its goal was to enhance classical agents of biological warfare for heightened pathogenicity and resistance to antibiotics; by the 1980s, it was creating new species of designer pathogens that would induce entirely novel symptoms in their victims...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.The article then goes on to describe some might scary weapons, including one that "in effect triggered rapid multiple sclerosis." And it makes a compelling case for how smallpox could be modified, with the help of a $5000, second-hand machine.So how does the public defend itself, when this kind of knowledge and sophistication is spreading? None of the scientists interviewed had any blockbuster solutions. But they all agreed: the Bush administration's approach -- spinning up dozens of new hot-zone labs, all handling deadly agents -- has been shortsighted, even dangerous.
"There are now more than 300 U.S. institutions with access to live bioweapons agents and 16,500 individuals approved to handle them," [Rutgers Universitys Richard] Ebright told me. While all of those people have undergone some form of background check -- to verify, for instance, that they aren't named on a terrorist watch list and aren't illegal aliens -- it's also true, Ebright noted, that "Mohammed Atta would have passed those tests without difficulty."Furthermore, Ebright told me, at the time of our interview, 97 percent of the researchers receiving funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study bioweapon agents had never been funded for such work before. Few of them, therefore, had any prior experience handling these pathogens; multiple incidents of accidental release had occurred during the previous two years.Slipshod handling of bioweapons-level pathogens is scary enough, I conceded. But isn't the proliferation of bioweaponeering expertise, I asked, more worrisome? After all, what reliable means do we have of determining whether somebody set out to be a molecular biologist with the aim of developing bioweapons?"That's the most significant concern," Ebright agreed. "If al-Qaeda wished to carry out a bioweapons attack in the U.S., their simplest means of acquiring access to the materials and the knowledge would be to send individuals to train within programs involved in biodefense research."(Big ups: Glenn)UPDATE 03/15/06 9:13 AM: Chem-bio specialist (and former intermittent Defense Tech guest-blogger) Jason Sigger calls BS on TR, saying, "This is the prime example of why you shouldn't let scientists evaluate issues of terrorism or military combat just because the weapon's lethality derives from the hard sciences."