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Last Updated

02 Jul 2003

Source: New York Times, July 2, 2003


Terrorism and the Biology Lab



Were those two suspicious tractor-trailers found in Iraq really mobile weapons laboratories? The difficulty we are having answering that question shows just how tricky defending America against bioterrorism is going to be.

In truth, it is possible to imagine a malicious use for virtually any biological research or production site. The difference between a lab for producing lifesaving vaccines and one capable of making deadly toxins is largely one of intent.

As molecular biology continues to advance, this problem will become only more acute. Within a few years it may be possible for an inexperienced graduate student with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment to download the gene structure of smallpox, insert sequences known to increase infectiousness or lethality, and produce enough material to threaten millions of people. Yet, perversely, all of the information and equipment needed to create such a "supervirus" would have been developed in the struggle to cure disease.

The United States is poorly prepared to deal with this intersection of biology and security. One reason is that most of the scientists in positions to help make national security rules are physicists and engineers, not biologists. Their instincts lead them to solutions that may make sense for nuclear physics but not necessarily for biology. For example, in trying to prevent terrorists and rogue states from developing atomic weapons, it is logical to focus on the details of weapon design and monitor shipments of a short list of specific materials like enriched uranium and plutonium. But putting this sort of emphasis on materials and labs will not suffice on the bioterrorism front, where everyday equipment could be used to create horrors.

In addition, there are few American biologists with experience in security policy, and most biologists remain willfully oblivious about the extent of the biological terrorism threat. Historically, biologists have had an instinctive antipathy toward national security policy, and their role in Washington has been largely limited to raising money for research and fending off restrictions on research involving issues like stem cells and cloning.

Physicists have had a vastly different experience. Since World War II and the Manhattan Project, they have worked in an environment where they often move among universities, national weapons laboratories and Washington policy offices during their careers. Most have grown accustomed to dealing with the burdens of security clearances, protecting sensitive information and even having research results kept secret.

Moreover, physicists have dominated science policy. Since the 1950's, physical scientists and engineers have had a nearly unbroken hold on the directorship of the White House office of science and technology. Physicists know how to exert influence on the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies, and have come to dominate bodies like the Defense Science Board.

Biologists, whether they like it or not, are now beyond the age of innocence. Unless they get involved at high levels of policy-making, there's a grave risk that another bioweapons scare like the anthrax mailings of 2001 will drive Washington to create that inevitable product of bureaucratic panic: a lose-lose solution. In this case, it would most likely be a set of regulations that would strangle biology research while doing little to thwart real security threats.

A comprehensive national bioterrorism strategy will of course take years to develop. But some essential first steps can be taken now. For starters, biologists and their professional organizations should make sure that all researchers spend time seriously considering security risks that could be created by their work. Biologists should work with federal agencies to provide more basic biology training for officials who manage security issues. Universities should set up programs to understand the dangers at the intersection of biology and security, and begin training a new generation of experts in the field. Universities and commercial labs must also work with federal agencies to agree on procedures for dealing with potentially dangerous research in the United States work that could be a basis for an international effort.

Unless biologists start moving in the right direction on security, they will have only themselves to blame if Washington starts moving in the wrong one.

Henry C. Kelly is president of the Federation of American Scientists.