Open Secrets of Biosecurity

Preventing the life sciences from becoming the death sciences.


Security experts and scientists get along much like cats and dogs. Security types reflexively treat information as power and share it sparingly with outsiders. Scientists are nearly exact opposites; they get credit for their discoveries by letting the whole world know what they've done and provide others with enough information to replicate their experiments. But what if the information enables some terrorist to replicate, say, the smallpox virus or manufacture a new designer plague?

The new National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is filled with 24 representatives selected from both worlds, along with ex officio members from a huge range of federal agencies. The two sides faced off last week at the first session of a NSABB meeting in Bethesda, MD.

"There is no doubt that our progress in fundamental science for the benefit of mankind has also created tools that have incredible capacities for mischief," declared Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health. "It is an unfortunate fact of life that there could be individuals out there who would use these very technologies and discoveries to terrorize nations and threaten the public's health."

The NSABB is tasked with devising policies aimed at preventing the misuse of "dual use" biotechnologies and information. "We want to help prevent the life sciences from becoming the death sciences," declared biologist Ronald Atlas who is also Co-director of the Center for the Deterrence of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

What kind of bio-threats are out there? Dale Klein, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, told me that he had intelligence that both state and non-state actors are working to insert toxin genes into easily transmissible pathogens like the flu virus. Klein also told me that a state actor has now developed a dry version of the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Klein added that he has seen reports that some hostile researchers are trying to create pathogens that will kill only people of European descent. Sadly, creating ethnically targeted bioweapons is not a novel idea. The apartheid regime in South Africa tried to devise a "black bomb," a biological weapon that would kill only indigenous Africans. Klein noted that while the racist regime in South Africa evidently didn't succeed in devising such an ethnic bioweapon, "we can do things a lot more easily now."

How easily? The NSABB held a session to discuss developments in synthetic genomics in which researchers are striving to build genomes of viruses and bacteria using DNA sequences produced in laboratories. Craig Venter, the biologist whose privately funded research raced the government project to sequence the human genome to a tie in 2000, testified before the biosecurity panel that any already sequenced viral genome including those of restricted pathogens can be made today. He further predicted that complete bacterial genomes will be synthesizable in 2 years. Back in 2002, Eckard Wimmer from the University of New York at Stony Brook synthesized polio virus using mail-order chemicals. So even if polio is completely eradicated in nature, a future bioterrorist could simply cook up some more which he could release into a human population that no longer is being vaccinated against the disease. In 2003, Mark Buller at the Saint Louis University in Missouri engineered a form of mousepox virus that was 100 percent fatal. A similar technique might be used to create an especially deadly form of smallpox.

The NSABB is considering various ways to thwart future bioterrorist attacks. First, the Board is looking at devising codes of conduct so that they can inculcate a "culture of responsibility" in life science researchers. Board member Michael Osterholm, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota and the associate director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense, noted that while the vast majority of scientists already follow such codes of conduct, there have always been nations, groups and individuals willing to ignore any ethical norms. He pointed to the extensive Soviet biological warfare research program that was run in contravention to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences issued Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the "Dual Use" Dilemma which recommended seven different types of "experiments of concern" receive extra review before being funded or published. These included experiments that would render vaccines ineffective; confer resistance to useful antibiotics or antivirals; enhance virulence of microorganisms; increase transmissibility of pathogens; alter the host range of a pathogen; render a pathogen harder to detect; or 'weaponize' biological agents or toxins. Such experiments would be initially reviewed by a research establishment's Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) and forwarded to the National Institute of Health and the NSABB if questions remained. But it seems unlikely that researchers aiming to attack their perceived enemies will submit their proposals to IBCs.

More troublingly, the NSABB is considering possible restrictions on the publication of scientific data that might be helpful to bioterrorists. The Board's preliminary discussion of this issue was particularly salient because of the controversy last week about the appearance of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on ways to poison the U.S. milk supply with botulinum toxin. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Health had asked PNAS not to publish the report on the grounds that it constituted a "road map for terrorists."

Thomas Bowles, who is chief science officer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed, told the NSABB that he didn't see how the life sciences community could continue in the future without reviewing all articles for biosecurity concerns before they are published. This assertion made the scientists on the Board visibly uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature told the Board members that not a single paper had so far been rejected by any of the Nature science journals based on biosecurity concerns. Campbell asserted that there is a general consensus among scientists that the open publication of pathogenic genomes is key to public health because the details of pathogenic mechanisms used by organisms to outwit the immune system are necessary to develop new treatments. Campbell argued the public availability of the SARS genome showed that the publication of infectious mechanisms and genomes can have almost immediate health benefits.

The preferred methods of security experts such as regulatory oversight over dangerous experiments and sensitive materials may all have some role to play in defending humanity from bioterrorism. But the real defense against bioterrorism is the open and international scientific enterprise itself. Just as advances in scientific knowledge have created the vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals that defend us against nature's immemorial bioterrorism, so will future advances protect us against man-made agents of disease. Scientific openness, not cloak-and-dagger secrecy, is our real bioterrorism defense.