BIOTECH: "THE MOST CHILLING THREAT OF THE 21ST CENTURY"
"...there is worry, as biotechnology expands around the globe, about the broad transfer of biotech knowledge and equipment. One recent report says many, if not most, of the key technologies required for making biological weapons are now commercialized for food processing and pharmaceutical purposes. The same report, by the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies, echoes many of the apprehensions and fears voiced in Nature Genetics" - from item below
This concern has particular resonance in Norfolk. Prof Mike Gale of the John Innes Centre, while Acting Director at the John Innes Centre, told The Times that the JIC was proud of its role in training students form around the world to take "the technology back to their own countries." At the time Gale made that statement it was already known that a postgraduate student studying plant science in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia, which is affiliated to the JIC, had gone on to become known as 'Dr Death' for the key role she played in work on developing weapons of mass destruction after her return to Iraq.
The biotech nightmare: The technology that has been hailed for its unlimited healing potential is mutating into the 'most chilling threat of the 21st century'
Ian MacLeod reports
The Ottawa Citizen - Saturday, October 27, 2001
In his very first prime-time television address, U.S. President George W. Bush talked about the "great promise" of biotechnology. "I'm a strong supporter of science and technology, and believe they have the potential for incredible good," he told his nation the night of Aug. 9, in announcing limited federal funding for stem cell research. On Sept. 11, he delivered his second prime-time address, about an act of incredible evil. Ever since, the great promise of biotechnology has been eclipsed by the looming peril of bioterrorism. Many North Americans are realizing for the first time that a technology capable of tremendous healing and hope can also be used for unthinkable villainy. In the hands of a Dr. Frankenstein, we are learning, the life sciences can actually kill us.
Biotechnology already has its controversies. There are concerns and even alarm about genetically engineered food crops, gene patents, reproductive technologies and stem cell research, among others. While there are religious and ethical objections, those debates are largely about the sensible use of biotechnology: how to govern it, limit mistakes and miscalculations and make it safe to practise and for consumers to use. But the anthrax deaths and threats in the United States have heightened public awareness about an issue that government, military and scientific people have worried about for years: Biotechnology is vulnerable to being exploited for patently evil purposes, too. Now the dark side of the biotech revolution appears to dawning, an age in which all sorts of living organisms will be vulnerable to genetic manipulation and conversion into silent offensive weapons. Lethal viruses tailored to be as communicable as the measles, germs that can exchange or combine pathogenic properties. Indeed, turning new technologies into weapons is a very old story.
In the Stone Age, prehistoric men fixed stone heads to shafts and created axes, and later developed spears and bows and arrows. The smelting of iron led to iron-tipped plowshares as well as high-quality knives and sword blades. The invention of the blast furnace led to the cast iron cannon. Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel amassed a fortune selling his creation, dynamite, to construction and mining companies and to the military. The invention of metal alloys that can withstand high temperatures led to the military use of the gas turbine engine, which led to the jet engine, which led to the modern combat fighter jet. The 1945 atomic bomb blast gave birth to the nuclear power industry and fears of nuclear terrorism. Rocket science led to nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, which led to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Yet there is one significant difference between bioweapons and spears, swords and nuclear bombs. They can all injure and kill, but biotechnology has the added malignant potential to modify and manipulate the essential ingredients and processes of all life on the planet. Most people have never really had to consider this dark side of the biotech revolution. And it is easy to see why. Advances in biotechnology, from medical therapies to the mapping of the human genome, have become so common in recent years that even daily newspapers haven't been able to keep up with the dizzying pace of "miracle" discoveries. Now, suddenly, the promise of science is being pushed aside by fears about the misuse and exploitation of science, of terrorists in lab coats unleashing horrible germs and of suspicious letters in mail boxes. We're being reminded that a civilization rooted in scientific and technological achievement is vulnerable to scientific corruption. "This is an inescapably tragic feature of our humanity, that our science and technology are the glory of our civilization but at the same time they're a threat," says professor Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. "I don't think there's any way of getting away from this."
Some experts, such as Dr. Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health and a specialist in molecular and medical genetics, are "not sure that the public has yet made the connection between biotech and the anthrax stuff, but certainly with biological agents."
An analysis in the respected journal Nature Genetics this week should remove any doubt about the intimate relationship between biotechnology and bioterrorism. "The threat of biological warfare and terrorism, though limited today, is real, and the genomics revolution has the potential to have major impacts on this most chilling threat during the 21st century," warns the article by U.S. geneticist Clair Fraser and Malcolm R. Dando, a British biologist and scholar on international security issues.
They talk of "stealth" viruses, introduced covertly into the genomes of a given population and triggered later by a terrorist's signal, and of "designer" diseases, such as one that causes healthy cells to suddenly die. "To ensure that the benign potential of genomics is realized," the authors advise biologists "to overcome their reluctance to discuss the implications of their work in the context of biowarfare and terrorist activities."
Aside from bioterrorism, there are also the unintended consequences of legitimate and beneficial biotechnological innovation. Earlier this year, for example, Australian researchers trying to find ways to stop rodents from devouring a major part of the global grain harvest accidentally created a deadly virus that may open the door to new and more virulent forms of smallpox. They did it by inserting an interleukin 4 (IL-4) gene into the mousepox virus, in the belief that it would boost the rodents' antibodies and make them infertile. Mousepox normally has only mild ill-effects on rodents. But with the inserted gene it wiped out all the test animals in nine days. The fear now is someone putting a human IL-4 gene into human smallpox, creating a new vaccine-resistant form of the highly infectious virus. There is also anxiety about the unforeseen repercussions of advances in genome sequencing technology. Genomics research in laboratories around the world will deliver the complete sequence of more than 70 major bacterial, fungal and parasitic pathogens of human, animals and plants in the next year or two, says the Nature Genetics' article. "The ever-expanding microbial genome databases now provide a parts-list of all potential genes involved in pathogenicity and virulence ... immune response evasion and antibiotic resistance from which to pick and choose the most lethal combination."
There are concerns too about the increasingly large worldwide cadre
of technically capable individuals, some of whom bioterrorism experts fear
could turn to relatively small-scale acts of destruction. And there is
worry, as biotechnology expands around the globe, about the broad transfer
of biotech knowledge and equipment. One recent report says many, if not
most, of the key technologies required for making biological weapons are
now commercialized for food processing and pharmaceutical purposes. The
same report, by the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies,
echoes many of the apprehensions and fears voiced in Nature Genetics. The
same technology that may someday extend the human life span can now be
used to improve and enhance the pathogens most feared in a bioterrorist
assault, the report says. The "improvements" include: safer handling and
deployment; easier distribution; and improved ability to target the host,
including the possible targeting of specific races or ethnic groups with
given genetic characteristics. Other improvements might be pathogens with
increased virulence, and greater transmissivity and infectivity, including
engineering a disease such as Ebola to be as communicable as measles; germs
resistant to antibiotics, vaccines or therapeutics; and benign micro-organisms
genetically altered to produce a toxin or venom. Though speculative, the
report says scientists postulate the following new types of biological
weapons can be manufactured during the coming decade:
** Binary biological weapons that combine, for example, the Hepatitis D virus, the rarest but most lethal form of the disease, with a bacterial virulence such as E. coli. Or mixing the plague with anthrax or dysentery;
** Designer genes and life forms, including synthetic genes and viruses, including far more lethal man-made versions of influenza; Gene therapy weapons, in which "Trojan horse" genes attack the body's ability to fight infections and heal wounds;
** Stealth viruses, which could be used to blackmail a population; and host-swapping diseases, in which viral parasites which co-exist in an animal host, are transferred to humans, with lethal results and no available treatment.
"I hope what (the current bio-terrorist scare) does is to cause people to think of the long term and how to keep things from getting very dangerous," Dr. Matthew Meselson, co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Warfare Armament and Arms Limitation, said in an interview with the Citizen. He and others are calling for an international law to hold not just states, but individuals and particularly government officials, responsible for making or using biological agents with hostile intent. "There have to be penalties and one of the best is to hold individuals responsible, so you couldn't say, 'I was just following orders.' We have to get over this idea that states can do just anything they want.
"I'm afraid the United States is going to propose just such a treaty (at November's review conference of the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention in Geneva), but they're going to narrow it to 'lethal intent' and that would mean that hostile intent, so long as it isn't lethal, could go forward. "I'm afraid there are still some people who dream that maybe we could have non-lethal biological weapons. It's very dangerous because it blurs the line very badly. The technology of learning how to do hostile things with biology could go forward."
And the consequences, he believes, will be qualitatively very different from those that have followed the hostile exploitation of earlier technologies. It will, he says grimly, "take humanity down a particularly undesirable path."
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