Scientific Advances Could Lower Bar for Biological Attack

(Aug. 11) -A technician loads anthrax DNA for analysis at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The increasing accessibility of biological research technology has prompted concerns that disease agents could be more easily produced for use in an attack (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).
(Aug. 11) -A technician loads anthrax DNA for analysis at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The increasing accessibility of biological research technology has prompted concerns that disease agents could be more easily produced for use in an attack (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).

Scientific and technological advances that allow more biological research experiments to be conducted outside of institutional settings are raising fears that terrorists could also find it easier to produce and weaponize disease materials, the Wall Street Journal reported today (see GSN, May 21).

Authorities over the last 10 years have not discovered a terrorist plot that involved biological weapons, though groups such as al-Qaeda are known to have sought such means of attack. Lack of expertise and access to the advanced technology required for pathogen development have been seen as key barriers to extremists' ability to develop and use a biological weapon.

However, as amateur scientists conduct formerly rarefied experiments like DNA duplication, concerns are rising about the implications of the spread of advanced scientific technology.

"Certain areas of biotechnology are getting more accessible to people with malign intent," said biological weapons expert Jonathan Tucker of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

"If students can order any (genetic sequence) online, somebody could try to make the Ebola virus," Craig Venter, who produced one of the world's first synthetic organisms, said in July.

"We are limited more by our imagination now than any technological limitations," Venter said.

Just 10 years ago, only a small number of facilities had the technology and knowledge to conduct sophisticated biological research. Now, however, amateur collaborative biology efforts have emerged that allow hobby scientists to exchange insights on activities such as isolation of genetic substances and constructing efficient centrifuges. This movement has been supported by relatively inexpensive equipment that can be used at home.

Technology proliferation concerns have led the FBI to contact some of these hobby scientists in order to educate them on appropriate security protocols and to request that they be on the look out for unethical biologists.

"The risks we're seeing now is that these procedures are becoming easier to do," said Edward You, who leads the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate outreach effort.

Still, many specialists argue that it continues to be very difficult for extremists to create or collect deadly pathogens let alone produce them in large quantities for an attack. A large-scale Soviet Union program operating over decades had uneven results in its attempts to develop biological weapons.

"I don't think the threat is growing, but quite the opposite," University of Maryland biological weapons expert Milton Leitenberg said.

"The idea that four guys are going to create bioweapons from scratch -- that will be never, ever, ever," Leitenberg said (Keith Johnson, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 11).

August 11, 2010
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Scientific and technological advances that allow more biological research experiments to be conducted outside of institutional settings are raising fears that terrorists could also find it easier to produce and weaponize disease materials, the Wall Street Journal reported today (see GSN, May 21).