What risks are inherent in new bio science?

Oladele A. OGUNSEITAN oaogunse at UCI.EDU
Wed Mar 6 16:02:29 EST 1996


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 
> anticipate? 
> 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.
> Thanks,  
> R. Taylor
> nrzm57a at prodigy.com

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