Researchers warn biotech advances could be misused by terrorists

December 20, 2002

The same scientific advances in biotechnology, genetics, and medicine that are intended to improve life could also be used to develop biological weapons capable of causing mass destruction, according to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. They urge governments and the scientific community to adopt a system of checks and balances to prevent the misappropriation of scientific discoveries and technology. Their analysis is outlined in an article published in the January 2003 edition of the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism.

The Hopkins researchers call the potential misapplication of science the "Persephone effect," named after the Greek myth of an innocent girl who was kidnapped and forced to share her time between Hades and Earth. The myth accounts for the change of the seasons and the annual cycle of growth and decay.

"Biology, medicine, agriculture, and other life sciences were always considered the 'good' sciences, but like Persephone they could be used to bring death and destruction in the form of biological weapons," explained lead author Gigi Kwik, PhD, a fellow with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies and assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to Dr. Kwik and her colleagues, recent advances in aerosol technology, microbiology, and genetics are areas of concern. In the article, they noted that the same aerosol technology used to develop inhaled insulin for the treatment of diabetes could also be used to push anthrax or other large molecules past the lung's immune system and deep into the airways where they can cause disease. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria help scientists determine which antibiotic therapies will be most effective in treating an illness, but former Soviet bioweapons builders are suspected using this technology to develop antibiotic-resistant forms of plague, anthrax, and tularemia. Last year, Australian researchers inadvertently created a lethal form of mousepox by adding a single gene to the virus, and this year scientists in the United States were able to create polio virus from scratch by assembling pieces of DNA. The Hopkins researchers suggest these technologies could make harmless unregulated organisms dangerous and render obsolete current policies to restrict access to dangerous pathogens.

The Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies recommends governments and the scientific community take steps to ensure security without hampering legitimate research or the flow of information. First, there must be an increased awareness of bioterrorism risks among scientists and the scientific leadership. Training and accreditation programs could increase awareness and stimulate better communication between the scientific and national security communities. The researchers stress that any biosecurity policies must take a "bottom up" approach by including direct involvement from working scientists. The Hopkins team also suggests that security provisions should work with the practices of biological research. Strategies that block the publication of certain research material would deter the free flow of information, impede careers, and discourage many from entering the research field. Guidelines are being developed to allow researchers to publish their work without providing information that would be useful to a bioterrorist. Universities and other scientific institutions should develop procedures to monitor scientific activities. As a world leader, the United States should also encourage other nations to adopt sound biosecurity governance systems.

"Biological weapons pose a strategic threat mirrored by no other form of attack other than nuclear weapons. There is no simple solution to biosecurity, but we must construct a system of checks and balances needed to assure that the growing power of the life sciences is used to protect life, not to destroy it," said Dr. Kwik.
"Biosecurity: Responsible Stewardship of Bioscience in an Age of Catastrophic Terrorism" was written by Gigi Kwik, Joe Fitzgerald, Tom Inglesby, and Tara O'Toole and funded by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

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