December 24, 2002
Researchers Warn Terrorists Could Misuse Biotech

Jeanne Kwik and others at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies have written a paper examining the threat that terrorists will be able to uses advances in biotechnology to make biological weapons of mass destruction.

December 20, 2002

Researchers Warn Biotech Advances Could Be Misused By Terrorists

Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies Urges Oversight of Scientific Information

The same scientific advances in biotechnology, genetics, and medicine that are intended to improve life could also be used to develop biological weapons capable of causing mass destruction, according to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. They urge governments and the scientific community to adopt a system of checks and balances to prevent the misappropriation of scientific discoveries and technology. Their analysis is outlined in an article published in the January 2003 edition of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

The Hopkins researchers call the potential misapplication of science the “Persephone effect,” named after the Greek myth of an innocent girl who was kidnapped and forced to share her time between Hades and Earth. The myth accounts for the change of the seasons and the annual cycle of growth and decay.

“Biology, medicine, agriculture, and other life sciences were always considered the ‘good’ sciences, but like Persephone they could be used to bring death and destruction in the form of biological weapons,” explained lead author Gigi Kwik, PhD, a fellow with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to Dr. Kwik and her colleagues, recent advances in aerosol technology, microbiology, and genetics are areas of concern. In the article, they noted that the same aerosol technology used to develop inhaled insulin for the treatment of diabetes could also be used to push anthrax or other large molecules past the lung’s immune system and deep into the airways where they can cause disease. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria help scientists determine which antibiotic therapies will be most effective in treating an illness, but former Soviet bioweapons builders are suspected using this technology to develop antibiotic-resistant forms of plague, anthrax, and tularemia. Last year, Australian researchers inadvertently created a lethal form of mousepox by adding a single gene to the virus, and this year scientists in the United States were able to create polio virus from scratch by assembling pieces of DNA. The Hopkins researchers suggest these technologies could make harmless unregulated organisms dangerous and render obsolete current policies to restrict access to dangerous pathogens.

Technology is just a way of doing things. It can be used for good or ill. But we appear to be reaching a stage of technological development where it is becoming easier for relatively small groups to use technology for tremendous ill. One of the characteristics of advanced technology is that it lets us more easily do more complex manipulations of matter. Technology advances to first make a previously impossible task possible to do if one has a great deal of money and highly skilled workers. So, for instance, it look most of the best physicists on the planet and the resources of the richest nation to build the first nuclear bomb. But as technology advances further the difficulty diminishes. It takes less money, fewer people, and less skilled people to accomplish some task because more advanced technologies are available to help do it. We can see the consequence of this for nuclear bomb development where much smaller and poorer nations can build nuclear bombs using less resources and fewer and less able scientists.

One of my greatest worries for the 21st century is that technological advances will shift the battlefield in favor of effectively anonymous attackers (i.e. attackers who attempt to blend into the societies that they attack and who are rarely seen operating as fighters). Such attackers may not even choose to operate as terrorists because death rather than terror may be their main objective. This trend could run so far that civilization will be very difficult or perhaps even impossible to defend.

This threat looks set to grow larger with time. The more that biological science and biotechnology advance the easier it will be to modify pathogens to make them more lethal and to create delivery systems that are more effective at getting pathogens into humans and into agricultural plants and livestock. Technology makes things easier to do. The problem is that the ability to attack may well advance more rapidly than the ability to defend. There have been periods in history when technological advances shifted the balance in favor of the defenders (eg in the modern era machine guns contributed to the trend near the end of the US Civil War when trench warfare began and then in WWI trench warfare reached its widest application) and other periods in history when technological advances shifted the balance back in favor of the attackers (eg the maturation of the tank helped to end the era of trench warfare after WWI).

For most of the modern era even when the state of technology has favored attackers it favored large state attackers. Civilization could still organize itself around the most powerful states. But what happens if we find ourselves in a situation where it becomes incredibly easy for small groups to build devices (eg mini-nukes or bioweapons) that can cause huge amounts of devastation? Defense may become so much harder than attack that large organized polities may become extremely hard to defend. There may be no technological solution to this problem.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 December 24 02:35 AM  Dangers Biowarfare

John Malinoski said at December 23, 2003 8:52 PM:

It would appear that its always easier to destroy something than to build something. Once you actually have a weapon then it depends on whether those whose job is enforcement can detect its presence or not. To step back which is easier to build defensive technology or weapon tech? The race is on. The government must get ahead of the curve instead of knee jerk reactions to what suddenly happens. The president as head of the executive branch is responsible for law enforcement. That is his primary responsibility. Does anyone actually know what the federal government is doing about law enforcement concerning such issues? How many of our freedoms must be relinquished to be safe? Is it possible to create a universal vacine to protect against such dangers? Has nature already given us a natural defense against such dangers?

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