Bioengineering: The Next Terror Threat

Modern society glides around on a cushion of the cyberworld with nary a thought. We have assimilated computer technology and all its many advantages into our lives to the point where we cannot conceive being without it. Then comes something like the massive global cyberattack on May 12 that affected over 200,000 computer terminals. This only goes to show, yet again, how vulnerable our computer dependent systems and data bases are to attack, theft, and disruption. 

For the longest time now, the consensus of cybersecurity experts has been that it's only a matter of time for a cyber 9/11 to be carried out, such as a massive attack on America's electrical grid, our transportation systems or financial infrastructure.  

Right now all the focus is on cyberattacks, But there is another new technology that advances every day, one that might even be less controlled than what is found in cyberspace. This is the realm of bioengineering.

Drew Miller, writing in the American Interest, says the world is entering the age of bioengineered viral pandemics (BVP). What he means is that due to rapid advances in bioengineering and genetic manipulation, it has become increasingly easier to modify an existing pathogen to make it more lethal and/or transmissible. As Miller writes:

Now it is possible to accelerate genetic change, creating viruses and bacteria that never existed before. with newer techniques, a simple cheap lab (perhaps in a neighbor's garage) can generate millions of recombinants in minutes. Through bioengineering, a lone terrorist or a Revolutionary guard lab in Iran can intentionally create a human-to-human transmissible version of avian flu, or modify a lethal virus to have a longer latency period, which would facilitate its undetected spread.

To put just the avian influenza into perspective, recall that this virus kills about 60 percent of its victims. Compare that to the Spanish flu of 1918, from which an estimated 50 million died worldwide. It had a mortality rate of just 2 percent. 

Or take smallpox. It is estimated to have killed 500 million people in the 20th Century. A smallpox outbreak today could even take a greater toll. Society's immunity has expired and our populations are far more vulnerable given how interconnected the world is today. 

Sanford Professor Dr. Nathan Wolfe warns that, 'if terrorists ever got their hands on one of the few remaining vials of smallpox, the results would be devastating.' 

Here's the problem. Given the rapid advances in DNA-manipulation technology, cheap lab equipment, and information posted on the internet, a single determined person might well come up with an artificial smallpox.... or something worse. The problem here is that there is no need for a national program, an elaborate laboratory or even specialized expertise to have a good chance of developing a BVP pathogen. One study estimated the cost to weaponize a bioagent to be as low as $250,000. And if a new lethal virus was to be developed, there would likely be no vaccine for it, making its killing effect greater. 

Society's control of the misuse of bioengineering is extremely weak. It's not even on the radar of the public or even most national security officials. And maybe this malevolent genie is already out of the bottle and cannot be put back in again.  

A BVP would be what Nassim Taleb described as a “black swan event” in his book of the same title. Taleb defined a black swan as an event that seemingly comes out of the blue and has an extraordinarily high impact on the way things are, but in retrospect could have been predicted. It sounds like a BVP would fit that description.

To sum up, the tools and information required for genetic modification of microorganism are readily available worldwide. This is why experts in the field feel that a BVP attack is inevitable. As for motive, there are many envy-driven entities and individuals in the world today who would love nothing better than to see America brought low. Think of Iran, North Korea, and the bevy of Islamic terrorist groups from the Middle East. Bioengineering a lethal and a contagious virus or bacteria could be an inexpensive way to hurt the U.S. with a good chance of avoiding detection. That's not a pleasant thought, but is one should be on the table for discussion nonetheless.

Modern society glides around on a cushion of the cyberworld with nary a thought. We have assimilated computer technology and all its many advantages into our lives to the point where we cannot conceive being without it. Then comes something like the massive global cyberattack on May 12 that affected over 200,000 computer terminals. This only goes to show, yet again, how vulnerable our computer dependent systems and data bases are to attack, theft, and disruption. 

For the longest time now, the consensus of cybersecurity experts has been that it's only a matter of time for a cyber 9/11 to be carried out, such as a massive attack on America's electrical grid, our transportation systems or financial infrastructure.  

Right now all the focus is on cyberattacks, But there is another new technology that advances every day, one that might even be less controlled than what is found in cyberspace. This is the realm of bioengineering.

Drew Miller, writing in the American Interest, says the world is entering the age of bioengineered viral pandemics (BVP). What he means is that due to rapid advances in bioengineering and genetic manipulation, it has become increasingly easier to modify an existing pathogen to make it more lethal and/or transmissible. As Miller writes:

Now it is possible to accelerate genetic change, creating viruses and bacteria that never existed before. with newer techniques, a simple cheap lab (perhaps in a neighbor's garage) can generate millions of recombinants in minutes. Through bioengineering, a lone terrorist or a Revolutionary guard lab in Iran can intentionally create a human-to-human transmissible version of avian flu, or modify a lethal virus to have a longer latency period, which would facilitate its undetected spread.

To put just the avian influenza into perspective, recall that this virus kills about 60 percent of its victims. Compare that to the Spanish flu of 1918, from which an estimated 50 million died worldwide. It had a mortality rate of just 2 percent. 

Or take smallpox. It is estimated to have killed 500 million people in the 20th Century. A smallpox outbreak today could even take a greater toll. Society's immunity has expired and our populations are far more vulnerable given how interconnected the world is today. 

Sanford Professor Dr. Nathan Wolfe warns that, 'if terrorists ever got their hands on one of the few remaining vials of smallpox, the results would be devastating.' 

Here's the problem. Given the rapid advances in DNA-manipulation technology, cheap lab equipment, and information posted on the internet, a single determined person might well come up with an artificial smallpox.... or something worse. The problem here is that there is no need for a national program, an elaborate laboratory or even specialized expertise to have a good chance of developing a BVP pathogen. One study estimated the cost to weaponize a bioagent to be as low as $250,000. And if a new lethal virus was to be developed, there would likely be no vaccine for it, making its killing effect greater. 

Society's control of the misuse of bioengineering is extremely weak. It's not even on the radar of the public or even most national security officials. And maybe this malevolent genie is already out of the bottle and cannot be put back in again.  

A BVP would be what Nassim Taleb described as a “black swan event” in his book of the same title. Taleb defined a black swan as an event that seemingly comes out of the blue and has an extraordinarily high impact on the way things are, but in retrospect could have been predicted. It sounds like a BVP would fit that description.

To sum up, the tools and information required for genetic modification of microorganism are readily available worldwide. This is why experts in the field feel that a BVP attack is inevitable. As for motive, there are many envy-driven entities and individuals in the world today who would love nothing better than to see America brought low. Think of Iran, North Korea, and the bevy of Islamic terrorist groups from the Middle East. Bioengineering a lethal and a contagious virus or bacteria could be an inexpensive way to hurt the U.S. with a good chance of avoiding detection. That's not a pleasant thought, but is one should be on the table for discussion nonetheless.

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