A few weeks ago, scientists at the US Military Academy at West Point warned that "the wide availability of the protocols, procedures, and techniques necessary to produce and modify living organisms combined with an exponential increase in the availability of genetic data is leading to a revolution in science affecting the threat landscape that can be rivaled only by the development of the atomic bomb."
One scenario prompting particular concern is a contagious virus created or modified by a terrorist group or other bad actor that is then deliberately unleashed into the general population, potentially causing even more death and disruption around the world than Covid-19. A bioterror attack involving a pathogen with a high death rate "is kind of the nightmare scenario" Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in April.
For the last five years I have worked as editor-in-chief of CTC Sentinel, a monthly, independent publication of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point that leverages its network of scholars and practitioners to understand and confront contemporary terror threats. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rising level of concern about the bioterror threat among some of the best and brightest minds should be a Category-5 wake up call for all of us.
Juan Zarate, who served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from 2005 to 2009, recently noted in a CTC roundtable that I co-moderated that "the severity and extreme disruption of a novel coronavirus will likely spur the imagination of the most creative and dangerous groups and individuals to reconsider bioterrorist attacks."
What is especially sobering is that the pandemic has exposed the current weak capability of public health systems in even highly developed countries like the United States to respond to a potential future bioterror attack involving a deadly virus.
In the past two decades there have been huge advances in the ability of scientists to engineer biological systems, a field known as synthetic biology (sometimes shortened to SynBio). While this is a very welcome development when it comes to improving human health, it has also led to growing concern over malevolent use.
Unlike in the nuclear field, where access to key know-how and materials is limited to a small number of highly vetted scientists and in which massive resources are needed to surmount the engineering hurdles to weaponization, in the synthetic biology field access has significantly widened around the world to knowledge, tools, and materials that could be used to create bioweapons. These dynamics led scientists at the United States Military Academy at West Point to sound the alarm over the potential future bioterror threat posed by synthetic biology.
Writing in the August issue of CTC Sentinel, J. Kenneth Wickiser, Kevin J. O'Donovan, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Washington, Major Stephen Hummel, and Colonel F. John Burpo, who all serve at, or are affiliated with, the Department of Chemistry and Life Science at the United States Military Academy, warn