"The Knowledge"

Mark Williams' article about the likelihood of bioterrorism, "The Knowledge", is now online at MIT's Technology Review.  I make a brief appearance in the penultimate paragraph.

Most of the article deals with the achievements of the former (we hope) Soviet bioweapons program, and whether new synthetic techniques could be used to reproduce these results in the garage or basement.  I've not much to say about the article.  The text repeats a number of my own observations over the years about the ease of obtaining used equipment, skills, and reagents (in Wired, at Future Brief, and in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism (via Kurzweilai.net), for example).  Williams does explore the issue that increased funding of biosecurity work increases the number of experts and explicitly amounts to proliferation.  Experts are consulted.  I disagree with them.  Enough said.

Technology Review went to the trouble of having Allison Macfarlane, an MIT research associate in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society, give a "rebuttal" to Williams.  Macfarlane begins:

Could terrorists, intent on causing as much harm and societal disruption as possible, use new biotechnology processes to engineer a virulent pathogen that, when unleashed, would result in massive numbers of dead? Mark Williams, in his article "The Knowledge," suggests we should be contemplating this doomsday scenario in the 21st century. Williams's article might make you sleep less soundly, but are the threats real? The truth is that we do not really know.

While most of the rebuttal is well argued, I have to disagree with the last point above: We know the threat is absolutely real, because we know pathogens have been genetically modified in the past.  The question, then, is the timing of the threat becoming imminent.  While it is not technologically challenging to synthesize organisms, or to insert novel genes into viruses or bacteria, it can be technically quite difficult.  That is, the laboratory widgets and reagents necessary to create new pathogens or even to resurrect the 1918 flu are easy to come by, but actually implementing the procedures correctly to produce infectious organisms is quite difficult.  In other words, this activity is still art.  For the time being.

For example, I've explicitly asked around about the difficulty of reproducing the 1918 flu, and responses have varied.  Some people have ignored outright my queries, and others have actively discouraged me from even exploring how hard this might be.  It seems there is a great reticence to discuss this possibility in public.  (I think this is a grave mistake.)  But after prodding people I know who have built RNA viruses in the lab, I would summarize the situation by reiterating that the difficulties lie in laboratory protocols -- skills -- rather than in any technological barrier.  Publishing the 1918 sequence didn't make much difference in this regard: once you know how to make one flu bug you can make any of them.  Worse, you could make a great many flu variants all at once, and let nature sort out which ones are worthwhile weapons.  This isn't news to anyone who has thought about the problem, and the only barrier is trial and effort in the lab/garage/basement/cave.

Thus the threat is very real, and it is probably only a matter of time before the first bug shows up.  How much time, I will not predict.  But I do know we are totally unprepared for naturally occurring threats, let alone the artificial ones that Williams focuses on.  Slowing research will simply leave us ignorant and, when the inevitable happens, struggling to mount even a minimal defense.