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After September 11 and Bali - how dangerous are scientific publications?

By Bea Duffield - posted Friday, 14 February 2003

A few years ago nuclear warfare was the big bogeyman. Now, in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks, anthrax-laced letters in the United States and the Bali bombings, the prominence previously given to nuclear warfare has been replaced with the biological warfare threat. A critical difference, however, is that biological weapons are more accessible to Joe and Josephine Public. Producing bio-bugs is low-tech stuff and anyone with a first-class honours degree in science, access to the Internet and a good-quality beef bouillon can manufacture some pretty lethal bugs.

Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but the point is with all that fission and fusion stuff, it's much more difficult to build a nuclear bomb in your backyard. Also, even though those who lived through the Cold War talked about it a lot, they never really believed nuclear warfare would happen. Deterrence would prevent it!

Biological warfare is scarier because it is more plausible. This is evidenced by the widespread fear we are now witnessing. In some parts of the United States for example, people go through security checks to buy stamps at post offices just in case these same good citizens are posting anthrax spores to Grandma or their local politician.


Until fairly recently, information on converting pathogens and toxins into biological warfare agents and on methods for their dispersal was largely unavailable. However over the past decade a Pandora's box of bioweapon related data has opened. Paul Zielbauer and William Broad reported in the New York Times (21 November, 2001) that American citizen Timothy W Tobiason was selling thousands of copies of his self-published germ-warfare cookbook containing step-by-step instructions on producing and delivering pathogens, natural poisons and toxic chemicals. Bioterrorism experts say that Tobiason's book is accurate enough to be dangerous.

These entrepreneurs have been inadvertently helped by the Government. According to Dr R Zilinskas at last year's Twelfth Annual International Arms Control Conference in New Mexico, the United States Government, as part of its routine declassification program, released a number of studies from the pre-1969 offensive biological warfare program that contain sensitive "how to" information on various lethal bio-agents. The Government is now trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted.

With the need for scientists in universities and other scientific institutions to either "publish or perish", a more worrying trend is the growing number of scientific papers published in legitimate microbiology and biotechnology journals that may be relevant to developing, producing and/or delivering biological weapons.

Individuals or groups seeking to develop biological weapons in violation of international law are unlikely to be driven by the "publish or perish" philosophy - publication numbers wouldn't be strong performance criteria for terrorism! So, it is safe to assume that people who submit research papers to scientific journals do so for peaceful purposes like developing and producing harmless commercial products - food additives, biopesticides, vaccines and so forth. However, the scientific knowledge and technical know-how contained in these papers could also be misused by various people trying to develop biological weapons.

A brief search of the literature reveals a list of possibilities. For example, the growth characteristics of the harmless bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, an agricultural pesticide, are the same as those of Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax. A published recipe for the industrial production line of B. thuringiensis could easily be modified to manufacture anthrax. Then there are numerous published methods used to develop attenuated live virus vaccines. These methods could be applied to develop more virulent viral strains for weapons, such as the information published about aerosol spray drug delivery systems (developed to replace insulin injections for diabetes and for intranasal delivery of a live anti-influenza virus vaccine) which is also the most efficient way of disseminating biological warfare agents.

A further example is published research on tobacco plants genetically engineered to produce a highly active E. coli immunogen which is structurally similar to cholera toxin. Large quantities of protein toxins could be made cheaply and easily using this method. Last year, Jennifer Couzin reported in Science (Vol 297, 2002) that infectious poliovirus was synthesised by researchers who assembled custom DNA strands ordered from a commercial biotechnology company. The researchers built an almost perfect replica of poliovirus by reading a recipe available in a public database. Scientists suggested that this same technology could be used to make smallpox, Ebola or the 1918 influenza strain that killed 20-40 million people.


The good news is that it is unlikely that un-educated lone terrorists or organisations with rudimentary scientific expertise would pursue the scientific literature in search of recipes for biological weapons.

The bad news is that the most serious threat is from scientists working in sophisticated, well-funded biological warfare programs conducted by rogue countries or in affluent terrorists organisations such as Aum Shinrikyo, which recruit skilled scientists and engineers to produce biological and chemical weapons. These potentially have the capacity and capability to search scientific literature to develop new and sophisticated bio-weapons.

So, as there is some legitimate concern that scientific knowledge could be used inappropriately, should scientific information therefore be regulated?

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About the Author

Dr Bea Duffield is General Manager of the Office of the Chief Scientist, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, which is a member of National Forum.

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