Science Is Profoundly Changing the Dynamics of Bioterrorism

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Science Is Profoundly Changing the Dynamics of Bioterrorism

Since 1945, mankind’s worst nightmare has been nuclear weapons. But, for the next generation, the worst nightmare is likely to be biological weapons. The threat related to an unstoppable and rapidly spreading man-made plague has made books like The Hot Zone1 best-sellers.

But how real is this scenario? And in a world beset by terrorist threats, how much do we need to worry that the means to create biological weapons of mass destruction will get into their hands? Is America’s $5.6 billion Project BioShield plan enough to protect U.S. citizens from biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear attack — or do we need more?

The reality of today’s rapidly advancing biological and genetic sciences is that DNA bases and other biological components are readily available from various jobbing companies for a few hundred dollars. And, anyone can go to a Web site like eBay or LabX and purchase a DNA synthesizer for as little as $500.

A centrifuge, necessary for refining biological weapons, can be purchased on the Internet for about $5,000. Chemical reagents for completing the job would cost another $200 or so — also available on the Web. And an incubator for growing the culture of cells would cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars — again, delivered from Internet sources. Depending on how sophisticated the equipment is, the total cost of a lab capable of synthesizing pathogens could cost as little as $10,000.

As we all know, the “genie of technology” can’t be put back in the bottle. Once something is invented, it can’t be made to disappear and will only grow more sophisticated with time. Therefore, we must adjust to living in a world in which biological systems will eventually become manipulated as easily as electronic ones are now.

Last February, the National Research Council,a part of theNational Academy of Sciencesreleased a report that predicted the appearance of biohackers — homegrown biotechnologists, capable of making new pathogenic organisms with unique and unpredictable characteristics. Assuming this is true, what could they realistically produce?

The focus since September 11, 2001, has been on anthrax, smallpox, and other common disease-causing agents that were investigated by national laboratories during the Cold War. Fortunately, those microorganisms are very difficult to come by. In some sense, they are like the enriched uranium or plutonium needed to make nuclear weapons: Getting the ingredients is the hard part...

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