Amid current outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nipah virus in India, an even scarier threat looms. Last year, researchers recreated an extinct smallpox-like virus with DNA bought online for just $100,000 and published how they did it. Their feat heightens concerns that rogue regimes and terrorists could similarly modify or engineer pathogens and use them as weapons. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned that such biological artillery might come to rival the destructive power of nuclear arms. If a highly contagious agent were released in a major city, it could spread far and wide and kill thousands before it is even clear what is happening. Responding effectively to such threats will require a paradigm shift towards approaches that are faster and more agile and decentralized than what exists now.
The low cost and do-it-yourself accessibility of genomic technologies makes it possible for such weapons to be deployed by almost any aggressor. Even small changes are enough to produce dangerous effects: A single mutation was all it took to transform Zika from a relatively routine infection to one that could cause brain damage in newborns. The fact that there would be no way of knowing who launched such an attack also potentially lowers the threshold for their use. Perpetrators could even design and release several deadly pathogens at the same time, hampering our ability to respond and sowing confusion.
After an engineered agent is released, we would likely have a window of only several weeks to prevent it from causing a global catastrophe. This requires controlling transmission so that each infected person infects, on average, less than one additional person, causing the epidemic to stall and begin to contract. Our recent track record against naturally occurring epidemics, however, is troubling and doing more of what we already do better will not be enough to stop agents designed to spread and kill faster.
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