Forget computer viruses, it’s the real goggas we should fear
Rapid advances in biology are making it easier for terrorist scientists to make rogue viruses
Rapid advances in biology are making it easier for terrorists and rogue scientists to develop biological weapons by engineering microbes, a panel of senior US scientists told the Pentagon last week.
Technological leaps in the field of synthetic biology are quickly expanding the potential for biological warfare, meaning it’s no longer solely in the hands of nation states with vast funds and expertise.
The prospects of recreating viruses from scratch, tweaking bacteria so that they become more dangerous, or tinkering with microbes so they manufacture toxins and poisons are the most concerning possibilities.
World governments should pay close attention to the field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said.
The warning came in a report commissioned by the Pentagon into how to weigh up security concerns from the field of synthetic biology where scientists have increasingly powerful tools to engineer organisms and their genes and proteins.“Synthetic biology expands what is possible in creating new weapons. It also expands the range of actors who could undertake such efforts and decreases the time required,” the academies said.
Advances in synthetic biology are said to herald a revolution in disease treatment, agriculture and even dealing with pollution. But the report warned the technology is open to misuse.
“As with previous expansions in technological capabilities, biotechnology in the age of synthetic biology presents a ‘dual use dilemma’ that scientific knowledge, materials and techniques required for beneficial research or development could be misused to cause harm.”
The dilemma made headlines last year when researchers were able to recreate an extinct horse pox virus, a cousin of the deadly small pox virus. The virus was made from scratch using DNA sequences ordered through the post, at comparatively little cost. While the researchers said their work would lead to better vaccines, critics said it also publicly demonstrated how easy it now is to manufacture a harmful virus.The academies looked at various scenarios for misusing new technology to make biological weapons to judge which were the most concerning. Recreating viruses, or tinkering with existing disease-causing bacteria, were considered the biggest worries.
“These capabilities are based on technologies and knowledge that are readily available to a wide array of actors,” the report concluded.
Any mammalian virus can be created from scratch at present. Genomes are widely known and their sequences can be made in house, or ordered in from commercial labs.
Building DNA viruses could now be done by someone with “relatively common” laboratory skills and basic equipment, “making this scenario feasible with a relatively small organisational footprint”.
Bacteria can be engineered so that they spread more easily, are more virulent, or are resistant to antibiotics.Overall the advances will “expand the range of what could be produced, including making bacteria and viruses more harmful, decrease the amount of time required to engineer such organisms, and expand the range of actors who could undertake such efforts”.
Another concern is people gaining the ability to use microbes or their enzymes as factories to brew up toxins and poisons, either in fermenters, or even inside people.
Currently more difficult, but perhaps possible one day, would be attacks that alter human genomes, to transfer harmful genes, suppress immunity and so on.
The report urged officials to keep watch on key technological obstacles to some of the scenarios, because the speed of scientific development is so fast these barriers could soon be breached.
- © The Daily Telegraph