2-1: On Bioterrorism

Laurie Garrett’s “The Bioterrorist Next Door” discusses whether there should be more governmental regulation on publishing or performing research that could lead to the development of biological weapons. On the one hand, regulation could theoretically prevent the knowledge of how to create dangerous biological agents from falling into terrorist hands. However, the “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry” that Al Qaeda asked for help could have much of the same background knowledge as the scientists who created the superflu, for instance, and could design their own research leading to the creation of a new superflu even if they did not explicitly know of the previous superflu research. It would be wise to have some sort of security regulations against publicly publishing explicit protocols for creating very lethal and/or contagious viruses and other dangerous biological agents, but in a way that would allow the scientific community to access this knowledge, possibly with a simple background check, in order to allow for research on how to defend against such viruses or agents to take place. — Rebecca

9 thoughts on “2-1: On Bioterrorism

  1. Would such a regulatory mechanism need to be created on a national or international scale? How might it be enforced?

  2. The author actually mentions a few government attempts to regulate or confiscate the publishing of papers that were considered dangerous for national security, but in every case the documents are leaked and later published. The problem with this type of regulation is that it goes against people’s constitutional rights of freedom of speech and their dissemination is justifiable.
    Perhaps a more efficient approach to prevent this threat is to regulate the purchase of the equipments required to produce the biological agents and to require countries that posses these equipments to follow strict security protocols.

  3. The wide availability of both research information and inexpensive equipment could, in theory, lead to the development of a biological weapon of mass destruction (although the plausibility of this statement could become significantly questionable when considering the personal deterrents that would generally prevent the potential bioterrorist from giving rise to a fatal epidemic, such as the impossibility of prevention from infection of himself, or of the community he belongs to). However, the costs of censoring research information are much too high, in the sense that censorship of research information would not be productive for scientific progress. As Sidney Drell underlines in his article “Physics and US National Security”, the secrecy of research information leads to a series of costs, among which the lack of “critical analyses of assumptions and decisions by qualified peers” (460) would infringe scientific progress. For instance, research was published in 2005 describing the resurrection of a 1918 virus – the Spanish flu – which led to a series of speculations regarding potential bioterrorist threats. However, the knowledge which was derived from the Spanish flu genome research turned out to be very valuable to humanity: further research pointed out that the respective virus responds to vaccines and anti-flu medications. It is crucial that research information be shared within the scientific community, so that further discoveries are enabled. As Professor Peter Palese stated in his article “Don’t Censor Life-Saving Science”, the scientific community possesses the best weapon against bioterrorism, while secrecy would lead to more vulnerability, instead of protection.

  4. I agree with Monique that there would be deterrents to individual bioterrorists developing a biological weapon of mass destruction. Not only would these potential terrorists risk personal and familial infection, but it would likely be hard for them to control the actual spread of the disease and make sure that it affected their intended target. Although the types of diseases that were discussed in “The Bioterrorist Next Door” seem like they would have no problem spreading to all corners of the globe, the terrorist could never really be sure that their weapon was reaching the people that they wanted to reach. I think that bioweapons like anthrax are more plausible for the future. The distribution on anthrax could be somewhat controlled and sent to specific targets. Although the anthrax did not necessarily reach the intended targets, I think the idea of a bioweapon that can specifically target individuals or small groups of people is the biggest future threat. That being said, the part of the article where they discuss the proliferation of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, and the types of diseases that were being experimented with alarmed me greatly. Regulation on these labs will be crucial to try and avoid an accidental disaster.

  5. Keeping the documents and research secret seems an ineffective
    way of protecting society against newly created viruses and bioterrorism
    weapons. As mentioned before, information is constantly leaked, and as seen in
    the case of Stuxnet, technology cannot be considered 100% secure.
    In terms of freedom of speech, researchers do have the freedom
    to publish what they discover. However, are they held individually responsible
    for the outcomes? Are there significant efforts being made to find vaccines for
    these viruses?

  6. I also agree with what Monique said about the costs of censorship being too high. I was particularly struck by Professor Matt Meselson’s words regarding self-censorship. He stated that he would “never publish” an article that described how to make a bioweapon. Although I believe in freedom of speech found some of the examples of governmental censorship in the article were a bit ridiculous (e.g., the Bush administration blocking presentations on climate change), I think that I would, as a scientific editor, have a similar tendency towards censorship. That being said, I would also recognize that history has shown us that science never stays secret. I also see that each individual editor has an important “line” to figure out for themselves. Meselson’s example of an article explicitly describing the creation of a bioweapon poses less of a moral conundrum than articles that aren’t as directly related to hostility. I would advocate for the government to trust the scientific community–and specifically, journal editors–to understand what should and should not be published. Finally, although I am not an expert on how the international scientific publishing community works, I can imagine that censorship would be unable to stop scientists in one country from publishing in another. So censorship of these “dangerous” or potentially dangerous papers seems quite quixotic.

  7. I would echo the concerns that censoring the publication or other dissemination of information related to biological weapons would be nearly impossible. To effectively prevent the publication of such information, any regulations would have to be international, since information flows from country to country across the Internet very easily today; sites like Wikileaks could easily publish information outlawed in one country but not outlawed in another. Researchers could also move to more permissive countries if their research interests are consistently censored–where safety regulations for facilities such as BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs might not be as stringent.

    Such censorship laws might, of course, create a deterrent effect or at least help establish a norm among scientists and scientific journals of not publishing articles that enable others to recreate biological weapons–essentially raising the costs of publishing potentially dangerous information even if it does not prevent all such instances.

  8. I agree with cwilbur; censorship of scientific documents is ineffective. Mere descriptions of results and original scientific thought can be enough to allow other scientists to quickly replicate results; moreover, such censorship severely undermines the scientific process.

    Instead, efforts should be made to improve overall government regulation of biological research. For instance, the article mentions a lack of cohesive regulation of what classifies as a BSL-3 research and a BSL-4 research. While such additional red tape may prevent a few from conducting research, such regulatory measures will ensure only well trained individuals handle such products. As someone who has taken microbiology courses, the chance of incorrect disposal of chemicals or samples is alarmingly high and to permit individuals in less regulated areas to handle potential lethal organism is unpleasant.

    In addition, regulation should better enforce who has access to biology supplies. Currently anyone with a couple thousand dollars can obtain biological processing instruments, which increases the chance of someone developing lethal bioweapons easily. While I am not entirely aware of current existing measures, there should be some sort of screening process; such screening is not uncommon in scientific research and would, with some friction, be adopted by the scientific community.

  9. I am going to pursue a different track than the previous commenters and
    agree with a few of Rebecca’s suggestions, arguing that common sense
    regulations on publications may be an effective step to take. However, far from
    giving a government authority the ability to actively censor any publication, I
    would propose that legal measures lay out specific guidelines as to what cannot
    be publicly published in certain fields (such as explicit, step by step
    instructions detailing how to create a biological weapon). I would advocate
    that these guidelines remain specific and restrained, preventing overbearing or
    unethical government censorship, such as the Bush administration’s attempted
    censorship of the Climate Change research described by Garrett. Furthermore, the
    law should not allow the government to actively intervene, but apply punitive
    actions to publishers, websites, or researchers that violate specific
    regulations. For emerging areas that are not covered by guidelines (due
    probably to the pace of research), we would have to rely on editors that have
    the conscience of individuals such as Matt Meselson, who according to the
    article, said he would never publish something describing how to make a
    bioweapon. That being said, any restricted publications should be made
    available to researchers with a specified security clearance, so that research
    in these areas could continue.

    Ultimately, I think we see from this discussion that there is a fine line
    between, as Rebecca says “prevent[ing] the knowledge of how to create
    dangerous biological agents from falling into terrorist hands” and as
    cgalaiya says, “undermin[ing] the scientific process.” I have a hard
    time rejecting all regulation based on concerns for the latter. Maybe the above
    paragraph proposing regulation has some flaws, by no means am I an expert. But
    the government, researchers, and editors have a moral obligation, some type of
    at least remedial responsibility, to prevent potentially dangerous research
    from falling into the wrong hands.

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