On Tuesday, I linked to a Technology Review article, "The Knowledge," about the accelerating spread of bioweapons gear and know-how. The story has touched off a big debate in the community that tracks biological threats. So I thought I'd give SUNY Purchase environmental science professor (and long time bioweapons researcher) Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation's scientists working group -- a chance to respond.
1. [The story's lead example, Russian bioweapons researcher Serguei] Popov, is a convenient tool for raising a number of ideas that have been around for awhile, and not just in Russia. The BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] does not prohibit research, and the US has been doing some of the same sorts of things for at least 20 years.2. Terrorists would have to be crazy to spend time and other resources on long-term BW agent development, risking detection without any certainty of success. They dont need MORE virulent agents. They dont need to synthesize agents. Anthrax can be isolated from cowfields all over the place. Unless and until real defenses against the standard agents are universal, the latter will do the job. ( And an even better job is done by explosives. ) The agent is just the first, easiest, step. Weaponization and delivery are harder. Testing is required if they dont want to fizzle. Testing is much more likely than genetic engineering to be detected.3. If terrorists actually wanted novel BW agents, the way to get them is to buy/steal/infiltrate a biodefense lab, as [Rutgers researcher Richard] Ebright says.4. The most notable information in the article is the description by Popov of how he was co-opted into working on BW, drawn in without at first knowing it until his career, his income and his future depended on it. To say nothing of patriotism. There are similar stories from S. Africa. Would a scientists code of conduct have mattered?5. Interesting that the article brings up pacification of a subject population and other modification of behavior with non-lethal weapons. This is a very popular research topic in a lot of countries these days, especially since the Moscow theater hostage event -- the Manchurian Candidate concept, essentially. [Harvard University molecular biology professor Matthew] Meselson has been fighting this for years. Tell the public, please, that this kind of research is likely to be turned against themselves, ultimately, rather than terrorists.As for terrorists developing such things I dont see why they would even want them. But if they did, they would know where to get them. Lets stop focusing our fears on hypothetical terrorists, when governments are actually preparing the tools!