Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The New Frankenstein?

In a recent post, I argued that the types of biological weapons Saddam Hussein was falsely alleged to possess, which constituted the essential justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, would not have been the menace they were almost universally represented to be. (That is, of course, had they existed.)

That is not to say, however, that it would not be possible to develop biological weapons systems which would in one way or another make the world far more dangerous. This is a complicated subject to which it is very difficult to do justice in this format, so I'll just try to feel a couple of parts of the elephant for you. One place to begin, even though it isn't really a basic introduction, is with the report Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism from the National Academy of Sciences. (You can download the executive summary if you are interested, but not the whole book.) As usual these days, the title demonstrates a distortion in thinking. It is not clear that we are any more in an "age of terrorism" than we ever have been, nor is there any reason to think that violent cults such as al Qaeda, as opposed to governments waging war, constitute the greatest risk for malevolent use of biotechnology.

But the report does not focus on geostrategic issues. Rather, it is concerned with what specific areas of research might have potentially malevolent uses, and what to do about keeping any evil genies in the bottle. It is highly unlikely that the current U.S. administration will look favorably on some of their most important recommendations. The NAS Committee notes that biotechnology research is going on all over the world. Unilaterally restricting and/or classifying research in the U.S. would be feckless, and would only harm U.S. interests.

Nevertheless, the NAS Committee wants 7 classes of experiments to be subject to prior review by the existing Institutional Biosafety Committees at institutions that receive federal funding. (And, through proposed international forums, they hope other countries will take similar actions.) These types of experiments are ones that would:

  1. Show how to render a vaccine ineffective
  2. Confer resistance to therapeutic agents
  3. Make a pathogen more virulent
  4. Make a pathogen more transmissible
  5. Enable a pathogen to infect new species
  6. Make a pathogen less detectable or diagnosable
  7. "Weaponize" a pathogen or toxin

With the possible exception of number 5, it is hard to see why anyone would pursue any of these goals except in the context of weapon-related research. (I can imagine someone wanting to modify a pathogen to infect new species as a method of pest control, for example wiping out the rabbits in Australia. One reason this is dangerous, apart from likely unintended ecological consequences, is that it could create a new non-human reservoir for a potential human pathogen.) In fact, the only reason that experiments such as this go on in the U.S. is that the U.S. military conducts them, ostensibly so that they can learn how to defend against novel agents. This research is highly classified, and we can learn little about it. So, even though they don't say so explicitly, the NAS is really talking about providing institutional review of military research.

And that leads us to another of the Committee's recommendations:

By signing and ratifying the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), the United States renounced the use and possession of such offensive weapons and methods to disseminate and deliver them. Given the increased investments in biodefense research in the United States, it is imperative that the United States conduct its legitimate defensive activities in an open and transparent manner. This should clear the way for all biomedical scientists to contribute to development of defensive measures that would mitigate the impact of the use of such weapons . . .

That'll be the day. Or just maybe, it will be January 20, 2008.

If the research the U.S. is doing is indeed purely defensive in its intent, then the less secrecy about it, the better -- for the sake of our international credibility and moral authority, as much as for our immediate personal safety. Sure, certain technical details might be useful to people who want to develop offensive weapons, but the broad outlines of what is going on should be public knowledge, and representative civilians with expertise and security clearances should have access to more sensitive information to provide advice and accountability. And obviously, useful results should be shared with the world.

As it turned out, the anthrax that killed 5 Americans in 2001 and shut down much of the U.S. mail didn't come from Saddam or al Qaeda, it came from a U.S. Army weapons lab. I'll feel a lot safer if they tell me what they are doing, than I do now.

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