Synthesizing Bioterror

Are mail order pandemics in your future?

(Page 2 of 2)

Some of these suggestions are quite sensible and unlikely to slow down beneficial research. For example, using software to screen orders for suspect DNA sequences, maintaining a list of customers, and registering DNA synthesizers do not appear to be unduly onerous. Licensing proposals should be rejected. Licensing the purchase of research materials would in effect turn them into controlled substances. And the Feds are already notoriously slow in approving security clearances, so there is no reason to think that they will be any speedier when it comes to approving DNA synthesizer licensees.

A robust biotech research sector that is not hobbled by excessive regulation is our best defense against bioterrorism (and natural pathogens). Instead of being a threat to our safety, rapid progress in biotech will enable us to quickly identify pathogens, either man-made or natural, and create fast and effective treatments for them. The response to the 2003 SARS outbreak in which that virus' genome was decoded in two weeks and vaccines were developed shortly thereafter is a good example of how biotechnological progress can protect us.

Finally, as meritorious as some of preliminary suggestions for governing biotech research may be, do they really address what should be our main bioterrorism concerns? The Venter Report specifically sets aside any consideration of state-sponsored research. Most nations have ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). However, that treaty has no enforcement and inspection mechanism. Consequently, at least one BWC signatory, the Soviet Union, maintained a vast biological weapons program until its collapse in the 1990s. As for basement bioterrorism, it is far more likely to emerge some day from a far off cave in the wilds of Pakistan than from a California university laboratory.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book,
Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Russell||

    Number 8 on the NAS Ten Worst list might be :

    'insert sequences which express proteins that yield illegal drugs as metabolites.

  • Pat||

    The guys in the far off cave get my vote. It won't be high tech. It will be massive. American policy is already giving our enemies the delivery system.

    Here is how they wll do it.

    Afghanistan is today the largest supplier of heroin to the free world. Americans consume some 18 tons of heroin a year and the government admits that 25-35% of it comes from Afghanistan. That is 4.5 to 6.3 tons of Afghan heroin being distributed onto American streets TODAY.

    One pound of pure heroin is more than 45 thousand 10-miligram doses.

    Afghanistan, according to the World Health Organization, has naturally occuring anthrax at endemic levels. All of those goat herds breed the stuff naturally. Afghanistan is also just a few hundred miles south of the former Soviet bioweapons research lab in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. A lab that stores hundreds of the most deadly bugs ever researched.

    So, access to deadly bugs is a foregone conclusion and access to a delivery system, already in place inside of America, is a given.

    All that alQaeda needs to do is contaminate five kilos of heroin and distribute those five kilos to five major American cities to instantly create one-hundred-thousand "patient zero" cases in each city. Such a massive attack using a common bug like anthrax would quickly reduce the American population by 20% within weeks. It would over-power our medical systems in days. Investigators trying to trace the source would be stymied by addicts reluctant to talk about their illegal sources thus making the spread even more aggressive.

    Anthrax presents itself in 12-14 days displaying cold like symptoms. A patient is infectous in 10 to 20 days. Five-hundred-thousand addict patient zeros each contacting and infecting ten other Americans who then each infect ten other Americans would infect 50-million Americans in the first month.

    Now consider these cases concentrated in our largest cities and industrial centers. Manhattan and L.A. for communications. Washington, D.C. Seatle's Boeing plant community. The Texas coast cities with their concentration of oil industry and refining. Chicago's distribution hub to the entire continent.

    As long as the United States government continues to prohibit the regulation of distribution of the intoxicant drugs to the $ 144-billion consumer demand in America the United States government itself gives alQaeda control of the heroin distribution into America as well as the money to buy the treason of any under-paid bioweapons technician in the former Soviet Union.

    And the U.S. government knows this.

    The 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment of the National Drug Intelligence Center of the Justice Department claimed success at reducing Colombian heroin and indirectly warned, in the heroin section of the report, that Mexican, Dominican and Colombian distribution channels into the U.S. would start to consort with Southwest Asian (Afghanistan) producers as Colombian heroin production declines.

    "Significant and prolonged shortages in South American heroin most likely would not result in an increase in distribution of Mexican heroin in eastern states because Mexico heroin production capacity appears insufficient to meet total U.S. demand and because users of white heroin have strongly resisted using black tar heroin. Instead, shortages in South American heroin availability would most likely result in an increase in Southwest Asian (Afghanistan) heroin distribution in U.S. drug markets; however, such distribution would very likely be controlled by Colombian and Dominican criminal groups who would purchase Southwest Asian heroin from sources in Asia or Europe."

    Our success at interdiction in Colombia is driving the Colombian distributors to seek out Afghan suppliers. SUCCESSFUL U.S. DRUG INTERDICTION IN COLOMBIA IS CREATING THESE CONNECTIONS.

  • Pat||

    My numbers in the above post are off by a factor of ten but the premise and facts remain. Sorry about any confusion.

  • dbust1||

    Thanks for giving them the basis for an op plan Pat!

  • Pat||

    TO: dbust1;


    Only in your very small frame of reference. Everything I posted is public information and no more proprietary than the article that is the basis of this thread.

    Originally published in 2002 the following fact was republished again in 2005.

    Coke Fiend Bin Laden
    26 Jul 2005
    New York Post

    "Osama bin Laden tried to buy a massive amount of cocaine, spike it with poison and sell it in the United States, hoping to kill thousands of Americans one year after the 9/11 attacks, The Post has learned."

    The basis of my argument. Will you now denounce the New York Post?

    Following your lead by keeping these issues under wraps is what gives our enemies their opportunity. I expose the issues to raise awareness to the deadly potential derived from continuing the war on drugs. If you are so concerned tell your representatives to end the drug war. The drug war is giving bin Laden these opportunities. The drug war gives alQaida and the Taliban this "aid and comfort".

    I've been writing about these issues for years and folks like you simplistically denounce and ignore it instead of positively acting to prevent the danger by confronting your politicians.

    Drug War anarchy empowering bin Laden

  • Pat||

    TO: dbust1;

    Do you actually think that bin Laden is reading the Reason Magazine 'Hit & Run' blog?

  • stuartl||

    Ron, isn't it a little early to worry? Isn't constructing the genome still a long way from constructing the organism?

  • ||

    I'm glad this is a libertarian site.

    Imagine the kind of things that would be posted here if it were the typical nazi-amerikan rag.

  • dbust1||

    Dearest Pat,

    I happen to know for a FACT* that OBL not only reads 'Hit & Run' but every newspaper, blog, magazine, pamphlet & brochure w/ any mention of him, Al Qaeda, terrorism, Islam and/or spelunking that is printed in the western world. This is, of course, why the CIA cannot find him because he spends all his time researching in remote locations in Paki-Afghanistan. But seriously, I was pandering to the baser conservative elements who prefer to keep their heads firmly planted in the sand in the naïve belief that the gov. is on top of every and any possible terror attack scenario.

    *this is an egregious lie on my part.

  • Chris||

    Isn't constructing the genome still a long way from constructing the organism?

    If it's a virus you're talking about, not necessarily. Many viruses can very easily and inexpensively be reconstituted if you've got the DNA in hand.

    DNA synthesis is way too simple to be regulated effectively. And there are probably 20,000 DNA synthesis machines outside of the U.S. anyways. There are probably better ways to address this potential threat than regulating labs in the U.S.


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