November 17, 2003
CIA Panel On Our Darker Bioweapons Future

The Federation of American Scientists has put up a file containing a rather ominous report released by the CIA Office of Transnational Issues entitled The Darker Bioweapons Future. (PDF format)

A panel of life science experts convened for the Strategic Assessments Group by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that advances in biotechnology, coupled with the difficulty in detecting nefarious biological activity, have the potential to create a much more dangerous biological warfare (BW) threat. The panel noted:

  • The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man.
  • The genomic revolution is pushing biotechnology into an explosive growth phase. Panelists asserted that the resulting wave front of knowledge will evolve rapidly and be so broad, complex, and widely available to the public that traditional intelligence means for monitoring WMD development could prove inadequate to deal with the threat from these advanced biological weapons.
  • Detection of related activities, particularly the development of novel bioengineered pathogens, will depend increasingly on more specific human intelligence and, argued panelists, will necessitate a closer - and perhaps qualitatively different - working relationship between the intelligence and biological sciences communities.

The Threat From Advanced BW

In the last several decades, the world has witnessed a knowledge explosion in the life sciences based on an understanding of genes and how they work. According to panel members, practical applications of this new and burgeoning knowledge base will accelerate dramatically and unpredictably:

  • As one expert remarked: "In the life sciences, we now are where information technology was in the 1960s; more than any other science, it will revolutionize the 21 st century."

Growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects, claimed panel members. The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world's most frightening weapons.

The know-how to develop some of these weapons already exists. For example:

  • Australian researchers recently inadvertently showed that the virulence of mousepox virus can be significantly enhanced by the incorporation of a standard immunoregulator gene, a technique that could be applied to other naturally occurring pathogens such as anthrax or smallpox, greatly increasing their lethality.
  • Indeed, other biologists have synthesized a key smallpox viral protein and shown its effectiveness in blocking critical aspects of the human immune response.
  • A team of biologists recently created a polio virus in vitro from scratch.

According to the scientists convened, other classes of unconventional pathogens that may arise over the next decade and beyond include binary BW agents that only become effective when two components are combined (a particularly insidious example would be a mild pathogen that when combined with its antidote becomes virulent); "designer" BW agents created to be antibiotic resistant or to evade an immune response; weaponized gene therapy vectors that effect permanent change in the victim's genetic makeup; or a irstealthll virus, which could lie dormant inside the victim for an extended period before being triggered. For example, one panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country with massive health and economic problems.

According to experts, the biotechnology underlying the development of advanced biological agents is likely to advance very rapidly, causing a diverse and elusive threat spectrum. The resulting diversity of new BW agents could enable such a broad range of attack scenarios that it would be virtually impossible to anticipate and defend against, they say. As a result, there could be a considerable lag time in developing effective biodefense measures.

However, effective countermeasures, once developed, could be leveraged against a range of BW agents, asserted attendees, citing current research aimed at developing protocols for augmenting common elements of the body's response to disease, rather than treating individual diseases. Such treatments could strengthen our defense against attacks by ABW agents.

They cited the pace, breadth, and volume of the evolving bioscience knowledge base, coupled with its dual-use nature and the fact that most is publicly available via electronic means and very hard to track, as the driving forces for enhanced cooperation. Most panelists agreed that the US life sciences research community was more or less "over its Vietnam-era distrust" of the national security establishment and would be open to more collaboration.

  • One possibility, they argued, might be early government assistance to life sciences community efforts to develop its own "standards and norms" intended to differentiate between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" research, efforts recently initiated by the US biological sciences community.
  • A more comprehensive vision articulated by one panelist was for the bioscience community at large to aid the government by acting as "a living sensor web" - at international conferences, in university labs, and through informal networks - to identify and alert it to new technical advances with weaponization potential. The workshop did not discuss the legal or regulatory implications of any such changes.

Attempts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology are already glaringly inadequate and are failing (and also see here). Efforts to prevent bioweapons development will fare even worse because the "footprint" of a bioweapons development effort will be able to be incredibly smaller than that of a nuclear weapons development effort. The development of microfluidics devices and nanotechnology hold the potential to revolutionize medical research, disease treatment, and the development of rejuvenation therapies. But those same technologies also will make it easier to use biotech for nefarious purposes.

Illustrating the speed with which biotechnology is advancing to create new bioterrorism threats is a recent announcement by Craig Venter and his Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives that they have synthetically created working copies of the known existing bacteriophage virus Phi X174.

Scientists at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) in Rockville, Maryland , announced their findings, along with the Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), Spencer Abraham, at a press conference Thursday in Washington, D.C. DOE funded the research.

J. Craig Venter, president of IBEA, led the research, working with longtime collaborators Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith of IBEA and Clyde A. Hutchinson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Venter and Smith were principal collaborators on sequencing the human genome. Smith, in his 70s, and Hutchinson, in his 60s, pulled all-nighters “just like post-docs” to create the genome in record time, said Venter.

Venter and his colleagues created the genome of a virus that infects bacteria but is harmless to humans. The genome of this particular virus, called phi X, was already a bit of a celebrity in the world of genomics. In 1978, it was the first virus ever sequenced. It has been extensively studied in the laboratory since the 1950s.

In 14 days, the researchers created the artificial phi X by piecing together synthetic DNA ordered from a biotechnology company. They used a technique called polymerase cycle assembly (PCA) to link the strands of DNA together.

Venter says techniques involved are like working with Lego building blocks.

As a demonstration, researchers at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives announced yesterday that they had created a simple virus in just 14 days by stitching together strands of synthetic DNA purchased through the mail.

"You can envision this like building something out of Legos," said IBEA President J. Craig Venter, who led the race to decode human DNA before joining the effort to build organisms from scratch.

The Phi X174 virus is 5,386 DNA letters long.

The team used enzymes to glue the oligonucleotides together accurately into the complete 5,386-base genetic strand, and to copy it many times. When the synthetic viral genome was injected into bacteria, the bacterial cell's machinery read the instructions and created fully fledged viruses.

By contrast, the previously synthesized 7500 base long poliovirus synthesis project took two years and the resulting poliovirus had errors in its DNA sequence.

Other researchers had previously synthesised the poliovirus, which is slightly bigger, employing enzymes usually found in cells. But this effort took years to achieve and produced viruses with defects in their code.

So the timescale has shifted from years to weekst o make a virus. There are other bigger viruses that would require more time to assemble. The biggest viruses are 400,000 base pairs long with HIV containing 10,000 base pairs whereas hepatitis B contains 3000, human cytomegalovirus contains about 230 kilo base pairs (kbps where kilo means thousand) and influenza at 12 kbp. By contrast the E Coli bacteria is 4 million base pairs, the the bacteria that causes tuberculosis is 4,411,532 base pairs (bp) and the bacteria that causes leprosy is 3,268,203 bp. So building artificial bacteria from scratch is a much bigger job. But keep in mind that 12 kbp number for influenza. Individual influenza strains have killed tens of millions of people. Imagine a bioengineered influenza attack that unleashed many deadly strains at once. The results for the human race would be catastrophic.

The research results for how to rapidly make a synthetic virus were held up by a security review that reached all the way to the White House.

Before the work was publicized, officials at the Department of Energy consulted with the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to make sure there were no security concerns. And the paper describing the results, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was subjected to an extra level of scientific review, according to Venter, who heads the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Md., where the work was done.

Note from the previous article that Venter thinks his team could make a bacteria with about 60 times larger genome from scratch within about a year of starting.

The Venter team used improvements of a process called polymerase cycling assembly (PCA) to achieve the fast construction time. This technique could also be applied to dangerous viruses whose sequences are known.

But the DNA sequences of several nasty viruses, including smallpox, are now known and publicly available. And as one of the team observed, the entry proteins for smallpox might be provided by a related but harmless virus. Let’s hope nobody tries.

The debate about whether to destroy smallpox virus stocks is pointless because any virus or bacteria whose DNA sequence is published is eventually going to be easily creatable by labs all around the world.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 November 17 04:50 PM  Dangers Biowarfare

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