The Next Worst Thing
Is the federal government's expansion of biodefense research paving the
way for the bioweapons of the future?
By Michael Scherer
March/April 2004 Issue
It has been called a modern-day Manhattan Project—a spending spree so
vast and rapid that it might change the face of biological science. In
the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government is funding a massive new
biodefense research effort, redirecting up to $10 billion toward
projects related to biological weapons such as anthrax. The Pentagon's
budget for chemical and biological defense has doubled; high-security
nuclear-weapons labs have begun conducting genetic research on
dangerous pathogens; universities are receiving government funding to
build high-tech labs equipped to handle deadly infectious organisms;
and Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the home of America's secret
bioweapons program, is about to break ground on two new high-tech
Officials say the effort is designed to head off what a recent CIA
report calls the "darker bioweapons future." Intelligence briefings are
awash with speculation about other nations or terrorists developing
genetically engineered pathogens "worse than any disease known to man."
But a growing number of microbiologists, nonproliferation experts, and
former government officials say there may be a dark side to the
biodefense push: With poor oversight, government-funded scientists
could actually be paving the way for the next generation of killer
germs—and given the explosion of research, there is no way to keep
track of what is being done. "We are playing games with fire," says Ken
Alibek, a top scientist in the Soviet Union's bioweapons program until
defecting to the United States. "It is kind of a Pandora's box. As soon
as you open it, there is no way of putting it back in."
In a little-noticed report released in October, the National Academy of
Sciences warned that the government has no mechanism to prevent the
"misuse of the tools, technology, or knowledge base of this research
enterprise for offensive military or terrorist purposes." The report
called for dramatically stepped-up monitoring of federally supported
biodefense projects; so far, Congress and the administration have
failed to act on those recommendations. Federal anti-terror legislation
has focused on limiting access to stockpiles of known bioterrorism
agents such as anthrax. But in a world where scientists can create
deadly diseases in a test tube, says Dr. Ernie Takafuji, acting
assistant director of biodefense at the National Institute of Allergies
and Infectious Diseases, that is not enough. "When you come down to it,
the threat is not just the organisms," he explains. "The threat is the
technologies." The greatest danger, scientists and intelligence
officials agree, stems from researchers' increasing ability to alter
the genetic codes of viruses and bacteria: The same information can be
used either to treat disease or to make new germs— pathogens that
could, for example, be designed to evade treatment or to genetically
target specific populations.
Late last year, for example, Takafuji and other public-health officials
were caught by surprise when an American virologist, Mark Buller,
revealed that he was working on ways of creating a more deadly form of
mousepox, a relative of smallpox, and was considering similar work on
cowpox, which can infect humans. No one suggested that Buller, who has
been working at St. Louis University to defeat known techniques for
making pox viruses more lethal, sought to create a bioweapon. But the
prospect of manufacturing a more deadly germ just to see how it could
be killed worried many. "That is work that creates a new vulnerability
for the United States and the world," says Richard H. Ebright, lab
director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers
University. "It's like the National Institutes of Health was funding a
research and development arm of Al Qaeda." Buller himself, while
defending the benefits of his own work, acknowledges the concerns over
the new rush to biodefense research. "When you have thrown a lot of
money at it," he said, "people start to think very hard about what is
possible, losing sight of what is practical."
In another project that has raised eyebrows among bioweapons experts, a
U.S. Army medical scientist in Maryland has been seeking to bring back
to life key parts of the 1918 Spanish flu, a lethal influenza virus
that killed 40 million people worldwide. While such research could be
immensely valuable in fighting another deadly flu outbreak, it might
also be used to create such an outbreak, notes Ed Hammond, director of
the Sunshine Project, a group critical of American biodefense spending.
"If [the researcher] worked in a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian
laboratory," he says, "his work might well be seen as the 'smoking gun'
of a bio-warfare program."
Even more worrisome to many experts is the apparent growth in
secretive, or "black box," biodefense research by the U.S. intelligence
community. "There's all kinds of secret research going on right now,"
says Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist who has worked closely with
the military. "The more you create secret research in biology," he
warns, "the more you create risk." One program that has become public
is Project Jefferson, a Pentagon effort to genetically engineer a
vaccine-resistant version of anthrax. After the program's existence was
revealed by the New York Times in 2001, the Pentagon announced that it
intended to complete the project and that the results would be
classified. "[The military's] natural instinct is to exploit the
technology and keep everybody else away from it," says John D.
Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security
Studies at the University of Maryland. "In their hands, this technology
is potentially extremely dangerous."
Programs like Project Jefferson have already raised concerns that U.S.
scientists are treading dangerously close to the limits of the 1972
Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits offensive research. Just
months before September 11, the Bush administration walked away from
negotiations to impose biological-weapons inspections, in part because
American pharmaceutical companies did not want to open their labs to
international inspectors. The abandonment of the talks left the world
without any way to enforce the treaty's restrictions. Now, experts fear
that the explosion of American research—including programs such as
Project Jefferson that are widely viewed as potential violations of the
treaty—might encourage other countries to disregard the convention.
Despite these fears, the administration is pushing to expand research
programs even further. In a rare unclassified report on the Pentagon's
biodefense plans, James B. Petro, a top official in the Defense
Intelligence Agency, recently called for a new federal "threat
assessment" facility for advanced bioweapons. Such a facility, he
wrote, would investigate topics with "limited implications for the
general bioscience community, but significant application for nefarious
To many observers, the statement indicated that the United States is
moving toward a pre-emptive approach, attempting to beat terrorists to
the punch by being the first to produce novel pathogens. "What they
seem to be saying to me is that we are actually in a
defensive/offensive arms race," says Malcolm Dando, a British
bioweapons expert at Bradford University. "If the U.S. goes down these
roads, it indicates routes that people can follow." What do you think?
© 2004 The Foundation for National Progress