Zombies, Rabies and Synthetic Genomics

In the late 2008 horror movie, Quarantine, a sort of doomsday cult created a hybrid rabies virus in the basement of a Los Angeles apartment building. But before the virus was ready to be unleashed, it apparently bolted out the door and began infecting the immediate human population. Not surprisingly, the virus was designed to cause infected humans to quickly turn mad and want to gnaw on every other uninfected humans they encountered, spreading the virus exponentially to other humans, who then went mad and bit other humans and … you get the picture.

Charles Faddis, a 20-year veteran of the CIA who headed up the Agency’s WMD counterterrorism branch, noted that Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult, had worked on developing pathogens the group hoped would infect and kill every human on the planet.

Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but in the March 2007 Homeland Security Today cover report, Viral Visions, “a hybrid, genetically engineered rabies virus” was hypothesized that “could cause those infected to become mad enough to want to bite, in the process transmitting the virus.”

Viral Visions focused on disturbing new developments in genomics and biological research that increasingly are providing the potential for new and lethal designer pathogens.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal tackled this issue in the story, In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein.

Under the subhead, Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms, the report highlighted that “do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes.” The report asked whether these “biohackers [pose] a threat to national security?”

According to the Wall Street Journal report, “a senior official in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate says the bureau is working with academia and industry to raise awareness about biosecurity, ‘particularly in light of the expansion of affordable molecular biology equipment’ and genetic databases.”

A variety of federal officials who expressed these same concerns to Homeland Security Today more than two years ago reiterated their worries this week, pointing to the very sorts of home basement virology labs that were described in the Wall Street Journal report.

“The ability to create nasty pathogens like your hybrid rabies virus in your bathroom is becoming easier and easier,” one of the authorities told HSToday.us. “In the opinion of many in my field, this is much easier than trying to get enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb and then being able to construct an effective bomb.”

In the world of these hybrid pathogens, virus-inspired zombies – think the movie “28 Days Later” – are “possible,” a virologist who helps the Intelligence Community (IC) keep track of the work being done in the field of genetic engineering as it specifically relates to virology research and development told Homeland Security Today.

Viral threats carefully are being monitored by American intelligence authorities and bio-weapons experts. And apparently there’s reason for them to be even more concerned than they were two years ago. The Viral Visions report noted that the ability of individuals to create frightening new viruses in their basements was rapidly growing.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began worrying in earnest about designer pathogens soon after the October 2001 anthrax attacks provided evidence indicating the anthrax had been weaponized. An expert panel was convened to study the problem and to make an assessment of the seriousness of a synthetic viral threat.

Following an outcry from some of the scientists it empanelled to study the issue, the CIA Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Transnational Issues quietly released a short, unclassified synopsis of the academician’s November 2003 report, The Darker Bioweapons Future. It concluded that the “growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects.”

Although the two-page abstract provided no details concerning the expertise, equipment and facilities required to develop engineered pathogens, nor a time estimate for how long the development process might take, more than five years later the CIA—and other IC components —continue watching developments very carefully.

“The emergence of this field is driven by recent advances in the underlying technology of commercial DNA synthesis that allow biologists to produce and assemble segments of DNA quickly and cheaply with almost perfect accuracy,’ wrote John Dileo in a recent MIRE publication.

“While the synthesis of small segments of DNA has been possible for two decades, the use of these early techniques to produce a genome (the complete blueprint, in the form of DNA, for the construction of an organism) would have required years of work and been prohibitively expensive,” Dileo continued. “DNA production and assembly techniques have advanced to the point that a medium-sized virus can now be constructed in weeks. In addition, these improvements have led to a rapid increase in the number of companies that offer whole gene synthesis. The resulting competition has lowered prices to within the budgets of most researchers.”

Several years earlier, in the paper, A Practical Perspective on DNA Synthesis and Biological Security, published in Nature Biotechnology, the authors stated that “few developments have leapfrogged over predecessor technology as quickly and extensively as synthetic biology. Based on cutting-edge DNA synthesis technology, synthetic biology has already fueled an expansion of opportunities in biological engineering, with advanced capabilities that surpass those provided by traditional recombinant DNA technology.”

But while “synthetic biology promises vast improvements to our well-being and our understanding of the living world,” the paper’s authors noted, they also pointed out that “like any powerful technology, DNA synthesis has the potential to be misused. In the wrong hands, the new capabilities enabled by synthetic biology could give rise to both known and unforeseeable threats to our biological safety and security.”

And “current government oversight of the DNA synthesis industry falls short of addressing this unfortunate reality,” the authors warned.

The group of academics who authored the paper called “for the immediate and systematic implementation of a tiered DNA synthesis screening process.”

“In order to establish accountability at the user level,” they wrote, “individuals who place orders for DNA synthesis would be required to identify themselves, their home organization, and all relevant biosafety level information.

“Next, individual companies would use software tools to check synthesis orders against a set of select agents or sequences to help ensure regulatory compliance and flag synthesis orders for further review. Finally, DNA synthesis and synthetic biology companies would work together, and interface with appropriate government agencies, to rapidly and continually improve the underlying technologies used to screen orders and identify potentially dangerous sequences, as well as develop a clearly defined process to report behavior that falls outside of agreed-upon guidelines.”

A year ago, Gerald L. Epstein, a senior fellow for science and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Homeland Security Program where he co-directs the Global Forum on Biorisks, wrote in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “there are … few technical barriers to bioterrorism. Essentially all of the materials, technology and skills required to produce biological weapons have legitimate applications for the commercial economy or scientific research, and many capabilities that once required the resources of a state could now be accessible to non-state groups. True, there are no legitimate applications that integrate all of the requirements that a bioweaponeer would need, but essentially any of the individual prerequisites can be mastered by those who have the technical ability, the dedication and the resources to pursue them.”

Epstein and several other authorities wrote about the need for security controls and protocols in the CSIS report, Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance.

Under provisions of the Agricultural Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, select synthetic genomic materials deemed to have the potential to pose a significant risk to public health, plant or animal health, or plant or animal production are supposed to be regulated.

The National Select Agent Registry Program oversees the activities of possession of biological agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public, animal or plant health, or to animal or plant products.

But there are loopholes, authorities told HSToday.us without pointing them out. The December 2008 paper, Managing the Unimaginable: Regulatory Responses to the Challenges Posed by Synthetic Biology and Synthetic Genomics, noted that “risks are not far-fetched, as was shown by the successful synthesis of a ‘live’ poliovirus through the on-line ordering of oligonucleotides and the reconstruction of the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ virus."

Of course, US regulatory control does not impede acquisition and transfer of genomic materials outside the country, which is one big reason experts in this field working for the Intelligence Community is actively monitoring a variety of activities worldwide related to synthetic genomics as a sort of early warning system against rogue states, terrorist groups and potential adversaries trying to manufacture fearsome new biological pathogens as weapons.

 

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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