The MIT Technology Review published a long and important story on the bioweapons threat on its website this week. The story highlights the claims of a former Soviet bioweapons expert, Serguei Popov, regarding the relative ease of developing bioterror agents. It looks at the scope and nature of the bioterror threat, both in its present incarnations and in terms of the uncertain but ominous future threats from synthetic biology and bioengineered pathogens. And it looks at the federal government’s response to the bioterrorism threat, taking up the issue of whether U.S. biodefense activities today are effective, directed at the right threat, or perhaps dangerously counterproductive due to the fact that they increase the population of people with access to dangerous pathogens.
The story contains goes into a lot of detail about the processes and technologies associated with making bioweapons, but the editor’s note states that “We were also careful to elide any recipes for developing a biological weapon.” I’m not in a position to independently judge, but I hope that’s the case. And I hope that the people in the article who highlight the difficulties of constructing bioterror agents are correct. I’m generally a strong proponent of openness and transparency when it comes to homeland security, but decisions by scientists to release the full genome sequences of the 1918 bird flu or publish articles that detail key processes for bioweapons development make me very nervous sometimes, and remind me of Bill Joy’s seminal article in Wired in 2000 on “why the future doesn’t need us.”