The Epidemic Hunters: Viral Visions

Think zombies. Think “Night of the Living Dead.” Think movie director George A. Romero. Think of a highly contagious virus with the most horrific effect, like a “designer” rabies virus that not only makes the victim mad, but mad enough to want to run around biting people—bites that infect others, creating an exponentially growing horde of contaminated people gnawing on other people.
In the nightmarish world of Romero’s conception, it was some sort of never completely identified virus that not only awoke the newly departed but caused them to rise and become unrelentingly ravenous cannibals.
Today, in the world of a hybrid, genetically engineered rabies virus, the dead won’t be awakened and turned into flesh eaters, but a virus could cause those infected to become mad enough to want to bite, in the process transmitting the virus. Think of “28 Days,” the movie that reanimated the cannibal zombie monster movie genre, scientists told HSToday. “Now, that is possible,” said one, 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.
The IC is actively monitoring work in this field by keeping tabs on published works, technology transfers and purchases, the expertise of the scientists involved and other measures as a sort of early warning system against rogue states, terrorist groups and potential adversaries trying to manufacture fearsome new biological pathogens as weapons.
Some terrorists clearly are already thinking in this direction. Al Qaeda certainly has had nasty things in mind for a long time. As far back as March 2003, when documents and computer hard drives were seized during the capture of key Al Qaeda operations planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terror organization had recruited a Pakistani microbiologist, acquired materials to manufacture botulinum and developed a workable plan for anthrax production.
But more recently, Western intelligence agencies have been concerned about intelligence indicating Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations have discussed plans for terror attacks using bio-martyrs.
Senior Western counterterrorist intelligence officials who requested anonymity told HSToday that these plans call for squads of suicide-willing terrorists to deliberately infect themselves with a human transmittable strain ofbird flu once such a strain has become a human contagion, or a human transmissible form clandestinely bio-engineered to be passed between people. The suicide squads would spread the virus on international flights.
These officials said they are much more concerned about avian flu-carrying bio-martyrs than they are about a naturally occurring pandemic. A terror-exacerbated pandemic could, according to classified studies described to HSToday, kill inestimable millions around the world.
Dr. Mohammad Madjid of the School of Medicine, Texas Heart Institute, told reporters following publication of “Influenza as a Bioweapon” ( in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) in 2003, that “using influenza as a bioweapon is a probability. It’s just a matter of technology. If it’s difficult now, it will be easier in six months and much easier in a year’s time.”
Madjid and his co-authors wrote in JRSM that “taken together with the fact that influenza virus is readily accessible and may be causing more deaths than previously suspected, the possibility for genetic engineering and aerosol transmission suggests an enormous potential for bioterrorism.”
“This is a damned frightening possibility, and it isn’t science fiction by any stretch of the imagination,” one of the counterterrorist officials candidly told HSToday. “While we’re rightfully concerned by a natural pandemic, we’re a lot more concerned about a terrorist-induced pandemic or a pandemic fueled by terrorists. If terrorists get involved in this, this could get out of control, or at least beyond our capabilities to contain and respond, given our current state of readiness.”
Global concern
The notion of terrorists deliberately infecting themselves with any sort of nasty pathogen, though, is cause for alarm.
Senior lawmakers and congressional staffers have been given classified briefings on concerns that terrorists could use a bird flu pandemic to cause mass casualties in America. A US official familiar with intelligence activities told Newsweek in October 2005 that analysts are trying to keep tabs on whether terrorists could somehow bio-engineer a new strain of avian flu or otherwise exploit a flu outbreak.
In Australia, counterterrorism authorities have drawn up plans to defend the country against terrorists spreading avian influenza. There, the National Counter Terrorism Committee has included the use of a contagious new bird flu strain as a terrorist weapon in possible terrorism attack scenarios, Attorney General Philip Ruddock’s office confirmed, saying, “It certainly is factored into the counterterrorism plan.”
In Canada, the J2 Directorate of Strategic Intelligence, the military intelligence arm, also has warned of the potential for terrorists to fuel a bird flu pandemic—and it is particularly concerned about a bio-engineered strain of avian flu.
J2 Directorate analysts concluded in the heavily censored Dec. 8, 2004, report Recent Human Outbreaks of Avian Influenza and Potential Biological Warfare Implications, released to Canadian press in response to an Access to Information Act request, that the development of a man-made avian flu strain capable of triggering a human flu pandemic is possible.
The report stated that a pandemic strain engineered in a laboratory using reverse genetics would be technically challenging, but possible, and could be used to custom tailor a flu virus taking genes from a virulent but not highly transmissible strain and combining them with the genes of a contagious virus.
“Pretty scary, huh?” mused one of the IC scientists watching for the possible manufacture of such a pathogen. “Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s a lot of skepticism and eye-rolling over whether there’s even something here to be worried about—whether it’s even a technologically feasible threat to be wasting time thinking about or preparing for. But I assure you, it is!”
The scientists base theirconcerns on “the intelligence.” And it’s not just any intelligence, they say. Their beliefs are based on top secret codeword (GAMA UMBRA)-kind of intelligence.
Technology on tap
Virologists and microbiologists who spoke to HSToday on condition of anonymity say the technology does exist to, at least theoretically, create designer, hybrid viruses, some of which would make the avian flu virus look tame.
 “This is the future of biowarfare … that’s where we’re headed,” warned one of the IC scientists.
And progress in the field is proceeding apace.
In 2003, researchers inadvertently discovered that the virulence of mousepox could be significantly enhanced by the incorporation of a standard immunoregulator gene —a technique that also inadvertently pointed the way to greatly increase the lethality of any other naturally occurring pathogen like anthrax or smallpox.
Last fall, biologists finally managed to synthesize a key smallpox viral protein that blocks critical aspects of the human immune response.
In 2002, a team of biologists at the State University of New York created a polio virus in vitro from scratch using a genetic blueprint from the Internet and mail-order, tailor-made sequences from a laboratory supply shop.
Similarly, in 2003, researchers at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a non-profit research center in Rockville, Md., created a simple virus in 14 days by stitching together strands of synthetic DNA purchased through the mail.
It’s easy to get such material through the mail. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity Working Group on Synthetic Genomics reported in March 2006 that when 12 companies were asked if they screened orders for sequences that bioterrorists could turn into weapons, only six said they regularly screened for the possibility. Screening of synthesis orders is not a standard practice among vendors of synthetic genes or genomes, and there is no widely accepted, optimized methodology for screening ordered sequences—or the laboratory technology and supplies to perform this kind of work.
The New York university researchers used readily purchasable chemical supplies.
In a 1995 editorial in the journal Nature, following publication of the second complete microbial genome sequence, Barry Bloom, dean of the Faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, stated: “The power and cost effectiveness of modern genome sequencing technology mean that complete genome sequences of 25 of the major bacterial and parasitic pathogens could be available within five years. For about $100 million, we could buy the sequence of every virulence determinant, every protein antigen and every drug target. It would represent for each pathogen a one-time investment from which the information derived would be available to all scientists for all time. We could then think about a new post-genomic era of microbe biology.”
Only a decade later, this goal has been surpassed. Genomics work in laboratories around the world will deliver the complete sequence of more than 70 major bacterial, fungal and parasitic pathogens of human, animals and plants within a few years.
Moreover, “ongoing efforts in functional genomics using DNA arrays and proteomic analysis have begun to reveal the subsets of genes in the genome of each pathogen that are required for infection and that are involved in virulence and antibiotic resistance,” noted Claire Fraser of the Institute for Genomic Research and Malcolm Dando of the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK, in their paper in Nature Genetics, “Genomics and Future Biological Weapons: The Need for Preventive Action by the Biomedical Community” (http://
Life science experts assembled by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which was set up to advise the US government on which advances in biology could be exploited by terrorists, said last summer advances in biotechnology had opened aPandora’s box by making it easier to create much more dangerous biological threats. The panel noted that the effects of scores of engineered biological agents could be worse than any diseases known to man, and that the genomic revolution is pushing biotechnology into an explosive growth phase without adequate safeguards and precautions, meaning traditional intelligence methods for monitoring weapons of mass destruction development could be inadequate. The panel argued that very soon there might have to be a qualitatively different working relationship between the intelligence and biological sciences communities.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began worrying in earnest about such weapons soon after the October 2001 anthrax attacks provided evidence indicating the pathogen had been a weaponized variety. 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”(http://www. bw1103.pdf). It unequivocally stated 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, four years later the CIA—and other IC components —continue watching developments very carefully.
“This is the stuff that really keeps us up at night,” one of the watchers told HSToday.
Widespread alarm
Through long-time contacts in the IC, several of the people busy keeping track of synthetic genomics work around the world agreed to be interviewed for this article on background. But they aren’t the only ones who get chills about the possibilities that this rapidly developing science offers terrorists and enemies with resources.
“Of all the challenges to homeland security, developing and implementing strategies for dealing with attacks that use ‘next-generation’ pathogens, including novel or engineered agents, is one of the most important,” began the January 2005 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) report, Preparing for Terrorist Attacks that Utilize Next Generation Pathogens ( servlets/ purl/15014501-qrLy4U/native/15014501.pdf).
“Today, we must … consider the possibility of a terrorist attack that could take place simultaneously at multiple places across the country or globe, using a pathogen whose virulence and contagion is equal to or greater than that of naturally occurring outbreaks, and for which no intervention is currently available,” the LLNL report stated.
A year earlier, Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist at the University of California-Davis, painted a frightening picture of synthetic biology several decades from now in the Arms Control Today article “Will the New Biology Lead to New Weapons?” (
“Living synthetic cells will likely be made in the next decade; synthetic pathogens more effective than wild or genetically engineered natural pathogens will be possible sometime thereafter,” Wheelis wrote, adding, “such synthetic cellular pathogens could be designed to be contagious or noncontagious, lethal or disabling, acute or persistent.”
The 21st century threat
One month before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Claire Fraser and Malcolm Dando wrote in Nature Genetics that “microbiologists who have looked carefully at the possible applications of currently available technology to offensive biological weapons programs suggest that it might now be possible to, among other things, enhance the antibiotic resistance of biological agents, modify their antigenic properties or transfer pathogenic properties between them.”
They continued: “Such ‘tailoring’ of classical biological warfare agents could make them harder to detect, diagnose and treat. It could, in short, make them more militarily useful and thus increase the temptation to pursue offensive programs. Should such development of the third generation of offensive biological weapons programs be allowed to occur, what might happen in fourth-generation programs—say, in a decade or two—after the genomics revolution has consolidated and spread around the world?”
The lure of designer pathogens to future terrorists is stark and clear. And some think the threat is much, much closer than we would like to believe.
 “The genomics revolution has the potential to have major impacts on this most chilling threat during the 21st century,” Fraser and Dando concluded.
By most accounts, the revolution—and its easy access to pathogens—is accelerating at a much faster clip than scientists had expected. Meanwhile, safeguards, precautions and international protocols for standardized security have followed much more slowly, as the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity pointed out last year when it called for new security mechanisms and a rethinking of how security should be applied to genomics activities. Just this past November, experts attending a conference on genetics and terrorism at Edinburgh University said urgent measures are needed to prevent lethal pathogens and genetic technology from getting into the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. The National Research Council report “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma” ( notes that, despite the advances in life sciences that have spurred gains in public health, the risks nevertheless require greater security and scrutiny.
The opportunities for nefarious activity are now widely recognized. However, by Nov. 3, 2003, the government had failed to meet the deadline for certifying the more than 500 research labs using dangerous biological agents or to conduct the requisite background checks on the 3,600 employees at these labs pursuant to the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Three years later, the intent and spirit of the act still hasn’t been complied with, according to congressional staffers who track the issue.
While some critics argue that pulling together the knowledge, skill and resources to manufacture bioweapons isn’t as easy as some believe, it also wouldn’t be all that difficult either, other experts point out. Just before 9/11, the Conference on Biosecurity and Bioterrorism in Rome agreed that the international community needed to come together to assess the impact of genomics research every couple of years—out of concern for who’s doing what.
“The fact is the genie is out of the bottle on this one,” said one of the people watching for signs and indications of bio-weaponizing. “Think of a state like Iran throwing money and resources at the right people … I’ll let your imagination run wild with that one …” HST

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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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