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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