Biohacking and the problem of bioterrorism

Natural bioterrorism might be the bigger threat, and the value of citizens educated in biosciences can't be overstated.

You don’t get very far discussing synthetic biology and biohacking before someone asks about bioterrorism. So, let’s meet the monster head-on.

I won’t downplay the possibility of a bioterror attack. It’s already happened. The Anthrax-contaminated letters that were sent to political figures just after 9/11 were certainly an instance of bioterrorism. Fortunately (for everyone but the victims), they only resulted in five deaths, not thousands. Since then, there have been a few “copycat” crimes, though using a harmless white powder rather than Anthrax spores.

While I see bioterror in the future as a certainty, I don’t believe it will come from a hackerspace. The 2001 attacks are instructive: the spores were traced to a U.S. biodefense laboratory. Whether or not you believe Bruce Ivins, the lead suspect, was guilty, it’s clear that the Anthrax spores were developed by professionals and could not have been developed outside of a professional setting. That’s what I expect for future attacks: the biological materials, whether spores, viruses, or bacteria, will come from a research laboratory, produced with government funding. Whether they’re stolen from a U.S. lab or produced overseas: take your pick. They won’t come from the hackerspace down the street.

Breeding superbugs sounds trivial in a world where children are creating glowing E. coli, but it isn’t. The notorious H1N1 virus bred for human-to-human transmission wasn’t created by genetic manipulation; it was bred the old-fashioned way, by hand-infecting ferrets for many generations. I don’t know many DIY biologists with access to a breeding stock of ferrets, or who are willing to harvest the infected ferrets’ snot. What’s more important, though, is that this research points to the real danger: the unaided evolution of viruses among animals in the world’s poultry farms and stockyards. That’s where viruses mutate, breed, mutate, and breed again, for generation after generation, without asking any biologists for help. Bacteria are much the same: while there are good research reasons to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, don’t forget that they do just fine breeding themselves — in hospitals, in cattle feedlots, wherever antibiotics are used and abused.

So, I wonder: why do we worry about human bioterrorism at all? Natural bioterrorism is happening all the time: from the bubonic plague, which killed roughly half the population of Europe during the middle ages; to more recent outbreaks of Ebola virus in Africa; to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Worrying about geopolitical bioterrorism is a convenient escape from worries that are much more relevant, plagues that are here and now. It’s difficult to imagine a terrorist attack more devastating than Ebola, or more difficult to treat than MRSA or drug-resistant tuberculosis. Those are immediate threats we have to contend with. And, in the case of antibiotic resistance, it’s a threat that’s the result of human behavior. Unintentional human bioterrorism? Absolutely, and I only wonder that we aren’t more afraid.

What I haven’t seen mentioned in the fear-mongering surrounding DIY biology is the value of citizens who are educated in biological sciences. If there’s a pandemic, whether or not it’s of malicious origin, I can’t imagine any resource more important than citizens who understand how germs propagate, how they evolve, and how immune systems react to infection. After World War I, governments around the world allowed the development of amateur radio because they realized that, in case of disaster, it was a good idea to have people around who knew how to operate radio transmitters. Since then, amateur operators have proven invaluable in many disasters. The same could be true for biology. When doctors are scarce and hospitals overloaded, I’d rather look to a DIY biologist for help than put my trust in rumors or folk wisdom.

If the drug companies aren’t researching treatments and manufacturing vaccines, but are instead consulting their lawyers about liability, I’d even consider a vaccine developed and manufactured by a hackerspace. (If you think drug companies wouldn’t ignore a serious health threat, consider the sad case of the Lyme disease vaccine.) Risky? Perhaps; I’d definitely compare the mortality rates of the pandemic with the risks of a hackerlab vaccine. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a DIY vaccine ends up a better choice than doing nothing. It’s easy to forget that the first vaccines didn’t come from a pharmaceutical research lab.

Pathogens neither know nor care whether they’re the result of terrorist activity or natural evolution. When there’s an outbreak, regardless of the cause, we will desperately need citizens who understand biology and who are well-informed about how diseases spread. What’s important isn’t the origin of the disease; it’s the availability of a skilled community with the tools to understand and fight it.

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  • synbio

    “I won’t downplay the possibility of a bioterror attack.”.. but I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what you did here. You bring up many valid points but its reads like previous reports that always have to pick one threat over another. Both evolutionary and geopolitical threats are real. Is one more probably than the other, yes. However, biotechnology is MUCH easier to manipulate than 2001 and and will continue to rapidly advance in the next 10 years. Therefore, I want my govt to work on BOTH threats, there are available resources for both.

    • Mark Byron

      One downside of having government work on remedies is that you have to test them against the real thing. That means that a lot of labs will have the germs in questions and are one containment breech away from an outbreak.

  • Brad Arnold

    This letter to you is like the letter Dr. Albert Einstein wrote United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939.

    Dr. Einstein wrote, “…it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large quantity of uranium…,” and “…it is conceivable…that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”

    This letter is to inform you that it is possible to set up a biological chain reaction with a highly contagious construct virus, and it is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed by individuals.

    Nuclear blindness is the mistaken belief that the bigger the bang, the more powerful the weapon. A highly contagious construct virus is a bomb that keeps exploding through the population at a geometric rate.

    “A virus that has been engineered in the laboratory is called a recombinant virus. This is because its genetic material-DNA or RNA-has genes in it that come from other forms of life.These foreign genes have been inserted into the virus’s genetic material through the process of recombination. The term construct is also used to describe it, because the virus is constructed of parts and pieces of genetic code-it is a designer virus, with a particular purpose.” -The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

    “In truth, it is possible to imagine a malicious use for virtually any biological research or production site. The difference between a lab for producing lifesaving vaccines and one capable of making deadly toxins is largely one of intent.” -“Terrorism and the Biology Lab” by Henry C. Kelly, New York Times

    I estimate it is over ten times easier to construct a highly contagious virus than it is to enrich uranium using the gas centrifuge method.

    I estimate it is over ten times easier to set up a biological chain reaction with a highly contagious virus than it is to set up a nuclear chain reaction with a sufficient quantity of enriched uranium.

    I estimate it is over ten times easier for a terrorist to deliver a highly contagious virus than a nuclear bomb. A virus can be easily smuggled because it is small and nonmetallic, and can be used as seed stock to make an unlimited number of bombs.

    I estimate there are over one million people with the technical knowledge and access to the necessary lab equipment to construct a highly contagious virus. That number is growing.

    Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and now a biowarfare consultant to the Pentagon, said that while there are 1,000 to 10,000 “weaponeers” worldwide with experience working on biological arms, there are more than 1 million and perhaps many millions of “broadly skilled” scientists who, while lacking training in that narrow field, could construct bioweapons. “It seems likely that, over a period between a few months and a few years, broadly skilled individuals equipped with modest laboratory equipment can develop biological weapons,” Danzig said. “Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects us.” –Washington Post

    “The main thing that stands between the human species and the creation of a supervirus is a sense of responsibility among individual biologists.” -The Demon in the Freeze