Biologically generated superpathogens, beyond the control of medicine, are a truly horrific thought. And in an age when the West is facing enemies clearly not averse to shocking new means of warfare, they might be a horrifically realistic one.
Thusly, the federal government has launched a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. The NSABB will be operating by this summer, according to an announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month. The NSABB will oversee "dual use" biological research—research that could be used by therapists to cure, but which also could be exploited by potential bioterrorists to kill.
The NSABB will exercise regulatory oversight over any biological experiment that would: make human or animal vaccines ineffective; grant resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents for humans, animals, or crops; increase the virulence of human, animal, or plant pathogens, or make nonpathogens virulent; make pathogens more easily transmissibility or alter their host range; help evade diagnostic or detection methods; or enable weaponization of biological agents or toxins.
The NSABB seems intended to function much like the National Institutes of Health's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), which has ruled on the safety of genetics research since the 1970s. All experiments would undergo review by the appropriate Institutional Review Boards first, and if additional questions remain about an experiment's national security implications, the NSABB could conduct a further review and suggest limits on what is done and published.
So, with a new federal regulatory agency on the case, are we safe from bioterror now? In reality, this new biosecurity agency will only be regulating respectable researchers at universities and corporations in this country, who are not likely to be the guys cooking up some super-infectious version of smallpox to spread through the New York City subway system. Thus, this new federal effort may well be irrelevant to the Al Qaeda wannabes and illiberal political fanatics of the future.
What we ultimately need to defend ourselves against bioterror is a highly sophisticated biotechnology of our own.
Some commentators, however, advocate not just a unilateral disarmament when it comes to biowar, but deliberately trashing our own defenses. Most notoriously, Bill Joy proposed technological relinquishment as an option in Wired four years ago. Joy argued that humanity must essentially abandon technological progress because our ability to misuse it is far too great. This month, similar sentiments are echoed in Lawrence Lessig's article on "Insanely Destructive Devices," also in Wired.
According to Lessig, the way forward is to reduce the inequities and resentments that might inspire someone to resort to bioterrorism to destroy their enemies. This seems an extremely unlikely strategy, especially when we consider the most notorious bioterrorists of modern times. How could one ever satisfy the bizarre desires of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult?
Biodefense depends not on abandoning technology or appeasing our potential adversaries, but on nurturing a robust biotechnology. Remember, we are talking about "dual use" technologies—for both offense and defense.
First, before we panic about biotoxins, let's think a bit about evolution. If a truly horrific virus or bacteria were easily concocted, it is very likely that Mother Nature would already have generated one. But let us assume the worst: that fiendishly clever evildoers could devise some sort of superplague that would kill off some huge fraction of humanity. A plague as deadly as Ebola, more communicable than the common cold, and with a latency period of several weeks to allow it to spread through unwitting populations.
What would it take to counter such a pathogen? A dynamic and extensive diagnostic and biomedical manufacturing system that could deploy multiple levels of defense, including vaccines, new antibiotics, and other novel targeted therapies. To do that, we need to move ahead with innovative biotech.
Fortunately we are well on our way to developing such a biotechnological infrastructure. The future will see a system in which first responders, perhaps using biolabs on a chip, will be able to decode the genomes of pathogens in hours. Once decoded, biotechnologists could quickly identify essential metabolic circuits and then design therapeutic molecules to disrupt them, thus preventing the spread of the bioterror agent. For example, consider neuraminidase inhibitors like Tamiflu, and Relenza which halt flu infections if taken shortly after exposure or onset of symptoms. Similarly, researchers have discovered highly effective compounds like adefovir that block anthrax's deadly edema factor toxin.
Perhaps in the future, labs could design, test, and manufacture vast quantities of antibodies to protect people from bioattacks from newly bioengineered pathogens. Novel vaccines will also be part of any anti-bioterror defense effort.
Because of all of the above, it is vital that bad policies not be permitted to stifle biotechnological research and development. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to stop future bioterrorists from dreaming up and deploying new bioengineered pathogens. But a robust biotechnology should be able to confine the effects of such attacks to no more than the number of people who are killed by car bombs today. Future bioterrorist attacks will be nightmares for those affected, but they ought not be sufficient to destabilize civilization.