Home' Technology Review : March April 2006 Contents 52 FEATURE STORY
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check---to verify, for instance, that they aren t named on a
terrorist watch list and aren t illegal aliens---it s also true,
Ebright noted, that "Mohammed Atta would have passed
those tests without di culty."
Furthermore, Ebright told me, at the time of our inter-
view, 97 percent of the researchers receiving funds from the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study
bioweapon agents had never been funded for such work
before. Few of them, therefore, had any prior experience
handling these pathogens; multiple incidents of accidental
release had occurred during the previous two years.
Slipshod handling of bioweapons-level pathogens is scary
enough, I conceded. But isn t the proliferation of bioweap-
oneering expertise, I asked, more worrisome? After all,
what reliable means do we have of deter mining whether
somebody set out to be a molecular biologist with the aim
of developing bioweapons?
"That s the most signi cant concern," Ebright agreed.
"If al-Qaeda wished to carry out a bioweapons attack in the
U.S., their simplest means of acquiring access to the materi-
als and the knowledge would be to send individuals to train
within programs involved in biodefense research." Ebright
paused. "And today, every university and corporate press
o ce is trumpeting its success in securing research fund-
ing as part of this biodefense expansion, describing exactly
what s available and where."
As for the threat of next-generation bioweapons agents,
Ebright was dismissive: "To make an antibiotic-resistant
bacterial strain is frighteningly straightfor ward, within reach
of anyone with access to the material and knowledge of how
to grow it." However, he continued, further engineering---
to increase vir ulence, to provide escape from vaccines, to
increase environmental stability---requires considerable skill
and a far greater investment of e ort and time. "It s clearly
possible to engineer next-generation enhanced pathogens,
as the former Soviet Union did. That there s been no bio-
weapons attack in the United States except for the 2001
anthrax attacks---which bore the ear marks of a U.S. bio-
defense community insider---means ipso facto that no sub-
state adversary of the U.S. has access to the basic means of
carrying it out. If al-Qaeda had biological weapons, they
would release them."
Milton Leitenberg, the arms control specialist, goes a step
further: he says because substate groups have not used bio-
logical weapons in the past, they are unlikely to do so in the
near future. Such arguments are common in security circles.
Yet for many contemplating the onrush of the life sciences
and biotechnology, they have limited persuasiveness.
I suggested to Ebright that synthetic biology o ered low-
hanging fr uit for a knowledgeable bioterrorist. He granted
that there were scenarios with sinister potential. He allowed
that biotechnology could make BioShield, which focuses on
conventional select agents such as smallpox, anthrax, and
Ebola, less relevant. Still, he maintained, "a conventional
bioweapons agent can potentially be massively disruptive
in economic costs, fear, panic, and casualties. The need to
go to the next level is outside the incentive structure of any
Even those who are intimately involved with biodefense
often support this view. For an insider s perspective, I con-
tacted Jens Kuhn, the Har vard Medical School virologist.
The German-born Kuhn has worked not only at Usamriid,
and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, but also---
uniquely for a Wester ner---at Vector.
Kuhn, like Ebright, is no fan of how the biodefense boom
is unfolding. "When I was at Usamriid, it exempli ed how
a biodefense facility should be," he told me. "That s why I m
wor ried---because the system worked, and the experts were
concentrated at the right places, Fort Detrick and the CDC.
Now this expertise gets diluted, which isn t smart."
Kuhn believes, nevertheless, that some kind of national
biodefense program is needed. He just doesn t think we are
preparing for the right things. "Everybody makes this con-
nection with bioterrorism, anthrax attacks, and al-Qaeda.
That s completely wrong." Kuhn recalled his time at Vec-
tor and that facility s grand scale. "When you look at what
the Russians did, those kinds of huge state programs with
billions of dollars owing into very sophisticated research
carried on over decades---they re the problem. If nation-
states start a Manhattan Project to build the perfect biologi-
cal weapon, we re in deep shit."
But doesn t modern biotechnology, I asked, allow small
groups to do unprecedented things in garage laboratories?
Kuhn conceded, "There are a few things out there" with
the potential to kill people. But weighing the probabilities, he
saw the threat in these terms: "De nitely more biowarfare
than bioterrorism. De nitely more the sophisticated bioweap-
ons coming in the future than the stu now. There s dan-
ger coming towards us and we re focusing on concer ns like
BioShield. I don t think that s the stu that will save us."
Is Help on the Way?
The 21st century will see a biological revolution analogous to
the industrial revolution of the 19th. But both its bene ts and
its threats will be more profound and more disruptive.
The near-term threat is that genes could be hacked out-
side of large laboratories. This means that ter rorists could
create recombinant biological weapons. But the leading
edge of bioweapon research has always been the work of
government labs. The longer-term threat is what it always
has been: national militaries. Biotechnology will fur nish
them with weapons of unprecedented power and speci c-
ity. George Poste, in his 2003 speech to the National Acad-
emies, warned his audience that in coming decades the life
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