Are The Threats From Synthetic Bioweapons Being Exaggerated?

Illustration for article titled Are The Threats From Synthetic Bioweapons Being Exaggerated?

The advent of synthetic biology and DNA synthesis has raised concern that amateurs will use these technologies to turn pathogens into weapons of mass destruction. But as experts point out, this may be far easier said than done.

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As argued by Catherine Jefferson, Filippa Lentzos, and Claire Marris — all researchers in the Department of Social Science, Health, and Medicine at King's College London — there are several dominating narratives currently permeating scientific and policy discussions on the security threat posted by synthetic biology. They can be summarized like this:

  • Synthetic biology is making it easier for non-experts to manipulate dangerous pathogens and, therefore, making it easier for terrorists to concoct bioweapons.
  • Synthetic biology has led to the growth of a do-it-yourself biology community that could offer dual-use knowledge and equipment to bioterrorists seeking to do harm.
  • DNA synthesis has become cheaper and can be out-sourced, making it easier for terrorists to obtain the basic materials to create biological threat agents.
  • Non-experts could use synthetic biology to design radically new pathogens.
  • Terrorists want to pursue biological weapons for high-consequence, mass- casualty attacks.
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But these narratives, they say, rely on several misleading assumptions: Synthetic biology is not easy, DIY biology is not particularly sophisticated, building a dangerous virus from scratch is hard — and even experts have a hard time enhancing disease pathogens.

Perhaps alarmingly — at least to me — the authors claim that the bioterror weapons of mass destruction is a myth:

The first [dimension of this myth] involves the identities of terrorists and what their intentions are. The assumption is that terrorists would seek to produce mass-casualty weapons and pursue capabilities on the scale of 20th century, state-level bioweapons programs. Most leading biological disarmament and non-proliferation experts believe that the risk of a small-scale bioterrorism attack is very real and present. But they consider the risk of sophisticated large-scale bioterrorism attacks to be quite small. This judgment is backed up by historical evidence. The three confirmed attempts to use biological agents against humans in terrorist attacks in the past were small-scale, low-casualty events aimed at causing panic and disruption rather than excessive death tolls.

The second dimension involves capabilities and the level of skills and resources available to terrorists. The implicit assumption is that producing a pathogenic organism equates to producing a weapon of mass destruction. It does not. Considerable knowledge and resources are necessary for the processes of scaling up, storage, and dissemination. These processes present significant technical and logistical barriers.

They go on to argue that, even if a bioweapon were to be disseminated successfully, the outcome of the attack could be affected by other factors, like the "the health of the people who are exposed and the speed and manner with which public health authorities and medical professionals detect and respond to the resulting outbreak."

The authors say they're not arguing that there is no threat — they're simply trying to expose "misleading assumptions about both synthetic biology and bioterrorism that frequently underlie discussions about the dual-use threat of synthetic biology."

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Okay, I can kind of see where these researchers are coming from. I get it — no need to worry in the here-and-now. But whoa — let's not downplay the seriousness of this issue. As I recently noted, the pending threat of weaponized pathogens is very real. It'll only be a matter of time — perhaps only a few decades — before our understanding of the underlying science improves dramatically. Access to this information, along with the tools required to construct such WMDs (like bio-3D printers), can only get easier as time passes. Given the dire consequences, it's not too early to start worrying.

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You can read the entire report here, or a tidy summary here.

Image: Stokkete/Shutterstock.

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DISCUSSION

Okay... a synthetic (engineered) bioweapon is no more a threat than an extremely potent undiscovered strain of a virus or bacteria that would cause human death. If you don't have immunity from prior exposure, any nasty bug can kill you. And believe me, there's likely natural threats cooking out there that can put a big dent in our population, as much as any potential engineered bioweapon.

There are two components here: Engineering on the molecular scale. If you want to build a lethal virus from scratch, you have to engineer the DNA from scratch. If you want to construct a lethal protein or substance, you need to do the same thing. And we're not quite at that scale yet - at least not with putting the individual bricks of a substance together at scale. All our synthesis processes depend on leveraging existing biological systems. Odds are molecular printing will become a very big thing - its the key to meta-materials that we need to build things like space elevators and invisibility cloaks. However, even a carbon nanotube system for a space elevator is far simpler to engineer than the most basic DNA strand. Our bodies, even though it might not seem like it, have a lot of defenses that are pretty darn good at taking out the garbage. Which brings up the second point: If you're going to engineer from scratch, you have to know how to make a lethal virus. Just being able to construct a cell from scratch isn't enough, you have to know how to construct the cell to be lethal against your targets.

So, I sort of completely agree with them, we shouldn't be focused on that. Besides... if we can build a virus... we're only a few steps away from building a cell. If we can build a cell, we're only a few steps away from building differentiated cells. If the printing process can be made quickly enough, you could print an entirely new body in the blink of an eye, with all the nanotech enhancements and mods you like. And if we're at that point, you could probably build a system to transfer the entirety of the human brain into this new body.

Why build a virus when you could become a god?