Focusing on the "Right" Biological Threat
There is an on-going debate about the threat of bio-terrorism and the roles that natural or manmade biologicals might play. Some believe that the attention being paid to man-made pathogens (or the so-called “designer” pathogens) is misplaced and leaves the greater population open to a greater threat, those from the natural world.
So, has the preoccupation with artificial microbes created a situation in which the government has focused more on a broad-spectrum approach to immunity instead of a “one-bug-one-drug” approach? How real is the threat posed by these synthetic germs? According to Michael Kurilla, the Director of Office of Biodefense Research Affairs at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 'Mother Nature is the most dangerous terrorist. The microbial world is almost unlimited in its [terrorist] potential."However, despite the emergence of new diseases like SARS and the H5N1 bird flu (pandemic flu), he is also concerned about the threat caused by developments in synthetic biology and the possibility that either rogue scientists or bio-terrorists could duplicate some of this laboratory work and use the product(s) against society. As he puts it:
"The threat and the reality of synthetic biology is becoming greater and greater every day."
The worry is over the emergence of new genomic based biological science developments spearheaded by a group of scientists including J. Craig Venter, whose team recently decoded the human genome in 2000, has succeeded in synthesizing a bacterial genome entirely from scratch.
Yet, the author of the LA Times article, Wendy Orent, argues that Venter's feat does not immediately translate to terrorists making new “bugs” to kill us since Venter hasn’t quite been able to duplicate the bugs, and what he and his group have accomplished is to duplicate the genome of known pathogens. Further, it is argued that the government should not be spending countless billions of dollars seeking antidotes for threats that are still theoretical
"Synthesizing a bacterium from an existing genome changes nothing fundamental in our understanding of synthetic biology," she writes.
The counter argument though is that Venter’s work, while still in the early stages could lead to the ability of bio-terrorists to develop a hybrid bacteria that could create a threat to human beings. Venter’s research does make the creation of lethal new life forms seem more believable. It is on this basis that there is a belief that there is an imminent danger created by synthetic germs that has moved the U.S. biodefense efforts toward the “one-size-fits-all” approach to developing countermeasures.
Now, in a number of presentations, I’ve argued that if you don’t know what chemical or biological agent will be the “weapon of choice” in a chemical or biological attack, then it difficult at best to war game the situation, and clearly near impossible to develop vaccine countermeasures for such an event.
Indeed, the fear of dangerous synthetic germs has prompted the enormous, cumbersome apparatus which is the U.S. biodefense program to lurch in a new direction. "If we don't know what pathogens are coming, the reasoning goes, we had better develop new ways of countering them -- not one at a time but all of them," Orent writes. After the anthrax letter attacks of fall 2001 the biodefense establishment's immediate response was to focus on the greatest and likeliest of bioterror threats -- anthrax, smallpox, and plague. Almost four years later, Project Bioshield has little to show for all the billions of dollars showered on it. The old "one-bug-one-drug" strategy -- designed to develop vaccines and therapies for anthrax, smallpox and plague separately -- has been abandoned in favor of "broad spectrum technology" -- drugs and methods that will, at least in theory, kill many types of germs.
Project Bioshield, which was jointly run by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. The program aimed to produce new, safer vaccines and treatments for anthrax and smallpox, in particular.
However, the argument remains whether the broad spectrum or the specific approach is the best. Some like Rutgers microbiologist Richard Ebright believe that as known bacteria and virus strains gain immunity from existing treatments, that a broad spectrum approach is best. The alternative, counterargument comes from those who believe in enhancing what is referred to as “innate immunity,” which involves creating ways to intensify or strengthen these immune responses so the body can fend off all infections, whether newly evolved or artificial, as soon as they appear. Ms. Orent concludes:
"Artificial germs remain an illusion. Venter, like scientists before him, has not made a new germ. He used a genome map to re-create an old one. Similarly, despite all the interest in enhanced innate immunity, no one has been able to show that the approach works. The wreckage of Project Bioshield shows that the one-bug-one-drug approach is a failure. But by banking on the possibility of boosting innate immunity, the U.S. biodefense leviathan could well be, once again, staggering in the wrong direction."
Either way, it is pretty clear that the advances of science are moving pretty quickly. Whether all of this leads to new threats remains to be seen. Related discussion on the question of filtering the work of scientists like Craig Venter or Mark Bueller was discussed in an earlier post, Scientific Dilemma – Security versus Publication. Either way, this subject is bound to remain controversial. This post in no way attempts to resolve that controversy.