A recently-posted analysis of the myths and realities of the possible use of medical bioweapons suggests that much of the media hype surrounding the issue is not only wrong but may also hinder the creation and efficacy of governmental policy regarding potential terrorist attacks.
Three authors from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists tackle the issue at hand. Filippa Lentzos, Catherine Jefferson, and Claire Marris begin by making it known that the public narrative currently consists of information that may lead one to think that synthetic biology is making is easier for terrorists to create their own bioweapons, that there is a do-it-yourself community which terrorists can source to help create such weapons, and that lower costs in DNA synthesis will make it easier for terrorists to get their hands on the biological material necessary to create weapons of mass destruction or create new biological pathogens that can cause casualties on a massive scale. The authors then proceed to dispel these claims — calling them “misleading assumptions” — by discussing, piece by piece, the reality of each aspect of synthetic biology.
First, they say, synthetic biology is not easy. They point to an article that appeared in Nature, titled “Five hard truths for synthetic biology,” which debunks the hype that biological parts fit together like Lego blocks, that scientists can easily rewire cells, and that there is an easy path to hacking the basic elements of life. In reality, scientists are still working to define the pieces, and the complexity and variability of the entire biological system makes it difficult to complete even basic procedures, let alone “hack” life itself. The various aspects of synthetic biology are difficult for scientists in well-organized labs with many resources at their disposal; therefore, leaving the task up to just anyone (terrorists), especially anyone without access to modern medical labs and global ties to sources of information, would make even the basic tasks unwieldy.
There are people who participate in a community of do-it-yourself projects. These can be anyone from complete amateurs to trained scientists who work on projects in their free time, but even for experienced people with access to community labs, the challenges associated with having only access to non-professional equipment are daunting. Viruses are not easily made, and even though these amateur scientists may be able to purchase DNA sequences online and have it mailed to them, the would have to use amateur equipment to combine the sequences to create DNA fragments. And then they would need to combine multiple DNA fragments to create a genome. Neither of those steps is a simple matter even for groups of trained professionals in clinical environments with the most advanced equipment. Someone in a garage lab could not hope to complete such tasks without error.
Furthermore, scientists also have a difficult time creating disease pathogens. Even if, by chance, a terrorist group was able to transform DNA into genomes, they would still need to advance over the hurdle of creating new pathogens, if that was their goal. The Bulletin writers note public concerns about Mousepox and bird flu (H1N1) experiments as ways in which scientists have successfully engineered pathogens. However, concerning H1N1, scientists were ultimately unable to create an air-transmissible virus variant on their own. Concerning mousepox, other scientists likewise found that the interleukin-4 gene was lethal to mice, but only after they used it to try to create infertility in mice. Instead of creating infertility, it killed the mice, and the scientists were unaware of gene’s deadly nature until they saw its effects.
Lastly, the Bulletin writers point to the fact that enhancing transmissibility or stability in a gene often comes at the price of some other trait such as virulence. In other words, for scientists to make a virus more lethal, they may have to sacrifice its stability or ability to spread from person to person. Terrorists will also be up against this problem in their attempts to create deadly viruses, and those factors will weigh heavily on their ability to product weapons of mass destruction. Although the opinion that terrorists may seek to take out large populations with massive biological attacks, research from biological disarmament and non-proliferation experts shows that the risk of a large attack is very low. Small attacks are more likely; however, even small attacks must deal with the health of overall populations and the possibility that medical staff can adequately respond to biological outbreaks.
The authors in question here apparently believe modern medicine such as antibodies and vaccinations can prepare advanced societies with the means necessary to combat biological attacks. They show a wealth of evidence that points to public perception being largely incorrect in its assumptions, and they seem to fear negative impacts on public policy as a result of these prevailing myths. It is their hope that the public opinion be addressed for what it is and that, through analysis such as they have provided, facts trump any incorrect attitudes.
Image courtesy of Richard Wheeler via Wikimedia Commons.