"THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN"
On 6 Mar 1996, R Taylor wrote:
> I have a question for professional virologists, microbiologists, and
> molecular geneticists: What is the potential for evil application of our
> burgeoning ability to understand and manipulate pathogenic organisms?
> Could this technology, if deliberately applied with evil intent, be
> enormously destructive, even apocalyptic?
>> Some background: I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, and my thesis research was
> in biophysics. For several years now, I have specialized in communicating
> various biomedical research findings to scientists. I have seen firsthand
> the astonishingly creative and immensely productive uses researchers find
> for our growing understanding of all aspects of biological science. Just
> one example: Researchers in Texas and elsewhere are far along in a
> project to express antigens from pathogenic organisms in edible plants,
> so that people might eat the plants, and thereby acquire immunity from
> the pathogens. (The mucosal route for vaccine presentation is of great
> current interest. The edible vaccine notion combines this research thrust
> with a convenient and cheap method of producing and delivering the
> antigens). This is only one example; anyone in biomedical science knows
> that there is no end to the creativity and intellectual energy energizing
> researchers today.
>> But: every technology, every intellectual triumph in science, has been
> bent to the task of killing people. Atomic physics is only the most
> dramatic example. Given that record, what is the potential for a
> scientist, or group of scientists, to deliberately modify a pathogen--or
> to stitch together from various sources--something that would have world-
> changing potential--a virus that would spread wildly to kill a huge
> portion of the global population, or a bacterium that only attacked a
> specific ethnic group, or something else that is too horribly clever to
>> One thing that is clear from reading I've done so far is that many of the
> biological weapons we already have--some of which have been around since
> World War II--are exceedingly dangerous, and not all that hard to
> manufacture. Most would-be bioterrorists would not bother to engineer
> anything new when a few hundred gallons of anthrax spores, properly
> aerosolized and dispersed over a metropolitan area from a small private
> plane, could kill a million people (see, for example, a 1993 report from
> OTA on weapons of mass destruction).
>> But I'm not thinking about terrorists--I'm asking a broader, perhaps more
> theoretical, question: Given knowledgeable people with some funding and
> bad intent, what is the potential for evil application of our current
> ability to manipulate microorganisms? My experience over the years is
> that bringing this subject up among scientists gets about the same
> reaction as making a rude noise at a fancy dinner party. But if the a
> horrible potential is there, don't biomedical scientists have a
> responsibility to think about it?
>> I've posted this message on a few biological science newsgroups. I am
> trying to organize some thoughts on this subject, and I'd like to hear
> from anyone with an informed opinion on it, either by direct e-mail or
> public postings to this space.
>> R. Taylor
>nrzm57a at prodigy.com>>>>>>>>