Sunday, July 30, 2006

AS USUAL, BIO-DOOM INEVITABLE: The cliche of custom-made viruses and bio-hackers

The Post continued its series on the fun business of fighting bioterror with Custom-Built Pathogens Raise Bioterror Fears Monday morning. It was not as good as Sunday's The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror.


Briefly, the story about custom-made diseases being cranked out by biological hackers as future terrorists is already a cliche. It was done earlier in the year by the MIT Technology Review and as senior fellow looking at the issue at GlobalSecurity.Org, Dick Destiny blog has seen it repeated in various forms countless times.

Plus, the sourcing is lazy. (See to the end of the entry for the Post's endless use of Tara O'Toole, who through the years sings the same tune over and over about biological catastrophe.)

The script this is always the same: Start with scientist Eckard Wimmer and his cheap and custom-made variant of the polio virus in 2002.

The newsmedia bioterror, as well as technology, beat simply can't get enough of Wimmer because he affords them a kernel around which they can wrap more scarey stuff without actually having to be anywhere near the reality of what terrorists seem to actually know or be doing in the area.

So right off, cue the opening reel teaser/nightmare: "Eckard Wimmer knows of a shortcut terrorists could someday use to get their hands on the lethal viruses that cause Ebola and smallpox. He knows it exceptionally well, because he discovered it himself."

Next, deliver the declarative bromides on the subject.

"The future," [Wimmer] said, "has already come."


" . . . synthetic viruses are well within reach and getting easier . . . "This . . . is a wake-up call."

"The biological weapons threat is multiplying and will do so regardless of the countermeasures we try to take . . ." said another scientist for the Post.

People who read about national security have seen "wake-up call" thousands of times.

Everything bad that happens or that could happen is a wake-up call of some kind. Hurricane Katrina was a "wake-up call." The poor response by the health system for the postal workers during the anthrax attacks was a "wake-up call." Bioterror wargames that had horrible outcomes, mentioned in yesterday's entry, were wake-up calls. Dig this nifty Google search string on "bioterror" and "wake-up call." Yikes! Over 10,000 hits. Now, 'atsa "wake-up call!"

(Late addition: A couple weeks later, the search string returns about 1,000, indicating potential Google funny business. But if we use this new and improved search string, yow, back in business again with the truth laid bare!)

Anyway, when you see wake-up call in print, you know the person uttering it is posturing and the reporter is acting as a stenographer than actually thinking about what's going on.

There is no significant attempt made to balance the article or talk to any scientists with a less hysterical version of the future to deliver. It would wreck the menace of the story, the creation of the feeling that bioscience has swept us away and we won't survive it. Doom is inevitable.

Of course, al Qaeda doesn't have the ability to custom-made viruses. Having gone over and over and over the subject on this blog, like most recently here, readers know that the jihadists have the desire. But their capability is woeful or fairly limited as far as can be determined.

It doesn't matter to the scientists who push bioterror as an inevitable catastrophe. The future custom-made virus on a modest budget just provides a new slate of unverified, theoretical enemies called lone-wolf biological hackers. This is much better than having to actually find out about things like, what terrorists are actually doing.

If you're smart you can see where this is going.

Recalling yesterday's story about the NBACC at Ft. Detrick, the secret national lab that will be used to probe bioterror capabilities so that allegedly countermeasures can be developed, it doesn't take a great intuitive leap to imagine the lab getting into seeing how easy it is to make a handful of viruses, just so someone can have a classified paper on what the lone-wolf biological hacker can do.

Surprisingly, the Washington Post doesn't mention it.

But it does have time to furnish more quote of the wowee-zowee future-is-now variety.

". . . living machines from off-the-shelf chemicals" to suit the needs of science, said Jonathan Tucker, a bioweapons expert with the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

"It is possible to engineer living organisms the way people now engineer electronic circuits . . . In the future, he said, these microbes could produce cheap drugs, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells and generate hydrogen for fuel.

Yes, the lame will be made to see, the blind to walk, the plantar wart on your foot will be history, AIDS eliminated, global warming stopped . . .

Not only is the quote insipid, the juxtaposition of it with others that are delivered to paint the picture of a dark technological future in which no one will be saved is intelligence-insulting.

Well, which is it? Pollutants eliminated, dependence on fossil fuels ended? Or everybody is plagued with homelab-made viruses? F--- if I know!

Even drugs and vaccines won't be enough. Our current medicines are compared to the Maginot Line, presumably making the new bio-hackers the equivalent of the panzer divisions slicing through Luxembourg in World War II into our unprotected rear. (For the record, the Maginot Line reference was first delivered numerous times by another bioterror-is-coming scientist, Roger Brent, before Congress a year ago, and you can read it here. The Post apparently fancied it so much they either dug him up again to repeat it exactly for their story, or reprinted the quote without the original attribution to make themselves look smart and current.)

None of this is informative in any useful way. For example, if antibiotics and modern medicine and vaccines and national health care are Maginot Lines that won't protect us against the virus bio-hacker of the future, what do we do? There's no answer. Pray? Or die!

For the Post's big finish, out comes Tara O'Toole again, like a jack-in-the-box, the official designated harbinger of bio-doom.

"We haven't yet absorbed the magnitude of this threat to national security . . . It is true that pandemic flu is important, and we're not doing nearly enough, but I don't think pandemic flu could take down the United States of America. A campaign of moderate biological attacks could."

Just to put the shallow nature of the Post's article in perspective, we'll repeat some quotes from yesterday's blog entry, quotes also delivered by O'Toole, the chain-rattling ghost of bioterrors past, present and future.

On pandemic flu in a newspaper in 2005: "You're looking at a nation-busting event."

And also in 2005 for the Washington Post, on the message delivered by the jumped-up Atlantic Storm bioterror wargame: "The age of biological weapons is not science fiction; it's here."

Here at Dick Destiny blog we figure the Post and O'Toole are on track to repeat the same message once or twice more between now and this time next year, don't you?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only free and unfettered exchange of scientific information can ensure that enlightened societies stay ahead in the arms race with potential bio-terrorists. Restricting this exchange will breed increasing elitism and set us up on a downward spiral toward totalitarianism and the decay of our thriving intellectual society. This development is already rearing its ugly head. More and more restrictions are already placed on law-abiding US researchers, which begin to lose their competitiveness compared to nations where no such, or less, restrictions exist. This will of course do nothing to increase bio-security worldwide, all it does is hinder scientific progress. And yeah, it serves politicians to cover their butts ("God knows, we've tried everything in our power...") Haven't we learned from countries like Germany, how ill-conceived laws (Thank you, Green Party) against recombinant DNA technologies in the 70's, 80's and 90's have stifled and almost killed the biosciences there. They are now waking up, loosening their restrictions, while the US is tightening them. It doesn't make sense.

The poliovirus synthesis mentioned above is a far cry from being a blueprint for bio-terrorists. People who claim this are not only fear-mongering, but also ill-informed. Every molecular biologist with half a brain, and this would include scientists to whom terrorist would have easy access to, knew that this can be done. But since it was rather laborious to do at the time, nobody bothered to actually show it. Wimmer's poliovirus synthesis was a much needed wake-up call. They didn't put the information out there, it was there long before. They just drew attention to the fact that it is now easy enough to do, for them, and by extension, for a whole lot of other people. Where then would you draw the line of what can and cannot be published?

Perhaps the finding in 1958 (!) that naked poliovirus RNA is infectious should not have been published? (Alexander et al. Infectivity of ribonucleic acid from poliovirus in human cell monolayers. J Exp Med. 1958 Oct 1;108(4):493-506. PubMed PMID: 13575680; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2136898.

Perhaps the genome sequence of poliovirus in 1981 should not have been published? ( Kitamura et al. Primary structure, gene
organization and polypeptide expression of poliovirus RNA. Nature. 1981 Jun 18;291(5816):547-53. PubMed PMID: 6264310.)

Perhaps the fact that poliovirus complementary DNA (or cDNA) is infectious in should not have been published? (Racaniello VR, Baltimore D. Cloned poliovirus complementary DNA is infectious
in mammalian cells. Science. 1981 Nov 20;214(4523):916-9. PubMed PMID: 6272391)

Or perhaps technology allowing the synthesis of short single stranded DNA molecules (oligonucleotides) should never have been allowed to be developed (Caruthers MH. Gene synthesis machines: DNA chemistry and its uses. Science. 1985 Oct 18;230(4723):281-5. PubMed PMID: 3863253.) Interestingly, all these works where considered groundbreaking achievements (as can be judged from the prestige of the journals publishing them). And it's these four works that form all the necessary basis for the poliovirus synthesis.

In other words all the knowledge and technology needed for the synthesis of the artificial poliovirus by Wimmer's group was available in the early 1980's. The rest was "busy work"

Perhaps nothing should ever be published, because "Hey you never know where it might lead to..." Where does it begin, where does it end???

Just as an aside, the group around Eckard Wimmer and Steffen Mueller at Stony Brook University now uses this same methodology, for which they were originally scolded, in order to create new vaccines. See the following links:

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Continuing my train of thought.

Bio-security and Bio-terrorism are nothing but push-buttons words; figments of politicians imagination.

We cannot really completely protect ourselfs from bio-terrorism. We can only respond. The more we think about and the more possible scenarios we anticipate, the better and quicker we can respond in case it does happen.

In addition bio-terrorism is probably the least effective, and thus the least likely form of all terrorism. Why?

1. Once unleashed (such as with a "killer" virus), it's hard to control, least of all by resource-poor terrorists. In other words, it would come right back to their own backyard, and killing their brothers and sisters, more so than people in medically advanced societies. Bad PR for would-be bio-terrorists.

2. Once unleashed, it's hard to claim responsibility. Who would believe you? Millions of people die each year of infectious diseases. A few more from virus X, so what? If I claimed, I released the swine flu virus in Mexico causing the 2009 pandemic, would you believe me? Terrorists must have the satisfaction of a demonstrably human act in order to terrorize. A bio-terrorist attack may not give them that satisfaction.

In conclusion, if anything it may be the bio-anarchists (wreaking havoc for the sake of havoc) and not the bio-terrorists we should be worrying about.

9:37 PM  

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