Home' Technology Review : March April 2006 Contents 46 FEATURE STORY
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so far outside current arguments about biodefense that he
sounded as if he had come from another planet.
The conference s other speakers focused on the boom in
U.S. biodefense spending since the attacks of September 11,
2001, and the anthrax scare that same year. The bacteriologist
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biol-
ogy at Rutgers University, fretted that the enormous increase
in grants to study three of the category A bacterial agents
(that is, anthrax, plague, and tularemia) drained money from
basic research to ght existing epidemics. Ebright (who d
persuaded 758 other scientists to sign a letter of protest to
Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of
Health) also charged that by promiscuously disseminating
bioweaponeering knowledge and pathogen specimens to
newly minted biodefense labs around the United States, "the
NIH was funding a research and development ar m of al-
Qaeda." Another speaker, Milton Leitenberg, introduced as
one of the grand old men of weapons control, was more
splenetic. The current obsession with bioterrorism, the rum-
pled, grandfatherly Leitenberg insisted, was nonsense; the
record showed that almost all bioweaponeering had been
done by state governments and militaries.
Such arguments are not without merit. So why do Serguei
Popov s accounts of what the Russians assayed in the eso-
teric realm of genetically engineered bioweapons, using pre-
genomic biotech, matter now?
They matter because the Russians achievements tell us
what is possible. At least some of what the Soviet bioweap-
oneers did with di culty and expense can now be done
easily and cheaply. And all of what they accomplished can be
duplicated with time and money. We live in a world where
gene-sequencing equipment bought secondhand on eBay and
unregulated biological material delivered in a FedEx package
provide the means to create biological weapons.
Build or Buy?
There is growing scienti c consensus that biotechnology---
especially, the technology to synthesize ever larger DNA
sequences---has advanced to the point that terrorists and
rogue states could engineer dangerous novel pathogens.
In February, a report by the Institute of Medicine and
National Research Council of the National Academies enti-
tled "Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life
Sciences" argued, "In the future, genetic engineering and
other technologies may lead to the development of patho-
genic organisms with unique, unpredictable characteristics."
Pondering the possibility of these recombinant pathogens,
the authors note, "It is not at all unreasonable to anticipate
that [these] biological threats will be increasingly sought
after...and used for warfare, terrorism, and criminal pur-
poses, and by increasingly less sophisticated and resourced
individuals, groups, or nations." The report concludes,
"Sooner or later, it is reasonable to expect the appearance
of bio-hackers. "
Malefactors would have more trouble stealing or buy-
ing the classical agents of biological warfare than synthe-
sizing new ones. In 2002, after all, a group of researchers
built a functioning polio virus, using a genetic sequence
o the Internet and mail-order oligonucleotides (machine-
synthesized DNA molecules no longer than about 140 bases
each) from commercial synthesis companies. At the time, the
group leader, Eckard Wimmer of the State University of New
York at Stony Brook, war ned that the technology to synthe-
size the much larger genome of variola major---that is, the
deadly smallpox virus---would come within 15 years. In fact,
it arrived sooner: December 2004, with the announcement
of a high-throughput DNA synthesizer that could reproduce
smallpox s 186,000-odd bases in 13 runs.
The possibility of terrorists gaining access to such
high-end technology is worrisome. But few have pub-
licly stated that engineering certain types of recombinant
microörganisms using older equipment---nowadays cheaply
available from eBay and online marketplaces for scienti c
equipment like LabX---is already feasible. The biomedical
community s reaction to all this has been a general inching.
(The signatories to the National Academies report are an
exception.) Caution, denial, and a lack of knowledge about
bioweaponeering seem to be in equal parts responsible. Jens
Kuhn, a virologist at Harvard Medical School, told me, "The
Russians did a lot in their bioweapons program. But most of
that isn t published, so we don t know what they know."
On a winter s afternoon last year, in the hope of discover-
ing just what the Russians had done, I set out along Highway
15 in Virginia to visit Serguei Popov at the Manassas campus
of George Mason University. Popov came to the National
Center for Biodefense after buying a book called Biohazard
in 2000. This was the autobiography of Ken Alibek, Biopre-
parat s former deputy chief, its leading scientist, and Pop-
ov s ultimate superior. One of its passages described how, in
1989, Alibek and other Soviet bosses had attended a presen-
tation by an unnamed "young scientist" from Biopreparat s
bacterial-research complex at Obolensk, south of Moscow.
Following this presentation, Alibek wrote, "the room was
absolutely silent. We all recognized the implications of what
the scientist had achieved. A new class of weapons had been
found. For the rst time, we would be capable of producing
weapons based on chemical substances produced naturally
by the human body. They could damage the ner vous system,
alter moods, trigger psychological changes, and even kill."
When Popov read that, I asked him, had he recognized
the "young scientist?" "Yes," he replied. "That was me."
After reading Biohazard, Popov contacted Alibek and told
him that he, too, had reached America. Popov moved to Vir-
ginia to work for Alibek s company, Advanced Biosystems,
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