• BioterrorismGerman police find large quantities of castor seeds in bioweapon suspect’s apartment

    German police investigators have found more than 3,000 castor bean seeds in the Cologne apartment of a 29-year old Tunisian, who was arrested last week for making a biological weapon. The quantity of castor seeds was much larger than initially thought. Castor beans are used in making the toxin ricin. The suspect, who is married to a German woman, had been under police surveillance for contacts with Islamist extremists.

  • Designer pathogensSynthetic biology could be misused to create new weapons

    Synthetic biology expands the possibilities for creating new weapons — including making existing bacteria and viruses more harmful — while decreasing the time required to engineer such organisms, concludes a new report by the National Academies of Sciences. Although some malicious applications of synthetic biology may not seem plausible right now, they could become achievable with future advances.

  • BioterrorismPolice carry out more raids in Cologne, Germany, after biological weapon arrest

    Police in the German city of Cologne on Friday searched several empty apartments in a high-rise, following the Tuesday discovery of the highly toxic substance ricin in one of the apartments. On Thursday, police charged a 29-year-old Tunisian man with producing a biological weapon and for “preparing a serious act of violence against the state.”

  • TerrorismGerman police arrest man for building a biological weapon

    The police in Cologne, Germany, on Tuesday arrested 29-year old Sief Allah H. for trying to build biological weapons in his apartment. He came to Germany in 2016 and had been under police surveillance for terrorist sympathies. In mid-May he ordered 1,000 castor seeds — the main ingredient for used in ricin toxin — and a coffee grinder from an online store. In June he managed to produce the toxin June.

  • BiosecurityMost Americans favor more funding for biosecurity capabilities

    A new nationwide survey of the American electorate reveals that the vast majority of Americans support increased funding to address biosecurity threats. Additionally, most Americans support their elected officials actively engaging to promote and support biosecurity.

  • BiothreatsFunding restored to National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures lab

    The Fort Detrick, Maryland-based National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) is no longer facing an immediate jeopardy. The federal omnibus spending bill,  released last Wednesday evening, provided full funding for the biohazard laboratory – funding which the original administration’s budget proposal eliminated.

  • BioterrorismRestoring subways in the event of a bioterrorist attack

    Only a week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to several media companies and two senators. As a result, twenty-two people were infected and five died. Since these incidents, the U.S. has increased its efforts on measures countering bioterrorism. That incident stemmed from spores sent to individuals and offices where the reach was somewhat contained. Imagine if the spores had been taken onto a mass transit platform — like the subway. A subway incident can bring a whole city to a halt, and the effects can last much longer in the form of lingering fear and mistrust.

  • Designer pathogensAssessing the risks, benefits of horsepox synthesis

    Truly assessing the risks and benefits of the recent horsepox synthesis is not an easy task. Two of the latest articles analyzing the implications of this research have been released in mSphere. They point to the increased attention on DURC [dual use research of concern] and the debate surrounding the benefits of a new vaccine versus the potential for a nefarious actor to misuse the process.

  • Termination with extreme prejudiceBritain deploys specialist troops in city where ex-Russian spy collapsed

    Britain has deployed specialist troops to remove potentially contaminated objects from the site where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious after a suspected nerve-agent attack. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital since they were found on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English city of Salisbury on 4 March.

  • Termination with extreme prejudiceToxicologist: Lab with “military capability” likely made poison used on Russian ex-spy

    British investigators have announced that a “nerve agent” was used in an attempt to murder Russian former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March. But they have not specified what nerve agent was used in the attack. Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology and a member of the British government’s advisory group on chemical warfare agents, said about the likely source of the toxic substance: “I think it’s more a case in which we are talking about a military capability. If you are a diligent chemist, you will find procedures for making sarin and tabun and various other chemical agents. But there’s the complexity in making it and how efficient the reaction is. And, of course, there is the risk of exposure in making something, too. So containment to make sure that the laboratory person is not exposed is absolutely crucial. So I think, really, what one is looking at here is probably more a military-type manufacture. But again, we just have to wait and see.”

  • The Russia connectionName your poison: Exotic toxins fell Kremlin foes

    The sudden illness in Britain of a Russian former spy has drawn comparisons with another poisoning in the United Kingdom – the 2006 assassination by Vladimir Putin’s agents of Russian former-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic Aleksandr Litvinenko. In using various poisons – some of them esoteric — to have his critics and adversaries killed inside Russia and abroad, Putin is continuing a storied KGB tradition. Here is a closer, if brief, look at some of the poisons Russian government agents have used on their lethal missions.

  • Designer pathogensNew framework for guiding controversial research still has worrisome gaps

    In December the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) release lifted the funding moratorium on Gain of Function (GoF) research, following the controversial projects involving H5N1 in 2011. The “Framework for guiding funding decisions about proposed research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” is similar to the January 2017 “P3C0 Framework,” and it came with the bonus of restoring funding for such research – but there are still considerable concerns with how GoF research is evaluated and if these frameworks have really addressed the gaps.

  • Designer pathogensBioengineers today emphasize the crucial ingredient Dr. Frankenstein forgot – responsibility

    By Ian Haydon

    Mary Shelley was 20 when she published “Frankenstein” in 1818. Two hundred years on, the book remains thrilling, challenging and relevant — especially for scientists like me whose research involves tinkering with the stuff of life. Talk of “engineering biology” makes a lot people squeamish, and technology can turn monstrous, but I read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” not as an injunction against bioengineering as such. Rather, the story reveals what can happen when we – scientists and nonscientists alike – run away from the responsibilities that science and technology demand. Victor Frankenstein was certainly careless and perhaps a coward, unable to own up to the responsibility of what he was doing. We now know that science is best conducted with humility, forethought and in the light of day.

  • BiodefenseNew Congressional Biodefense Caucus launched

    A new Congressional Biodefense Caucus was launched last Monday. The caucus said it already has a bipartisan membership roll which includes twenty-seven Members of Congress. The caucus is “dedicated to strengthening our nation’s biodefense enterprise and national security.”

  • Designer pathogensHorsepox synthesis, dual-use research, and scientific research’s “action bias”

    Julius Caesar is said to have stated “alea iacta est” (the die is cast) as he led his army across the Rubicon river, triggering a point of no return in Roman history. In many ways, the horsepox synthesis, published by two Canadian scientists last month, is considered a new Rubicon for synthetic biology and the life sciences. Experts say that now that we’ve ventured across the river, it seems that we may be learning more about dual-use research in general. One expert notes that “Beyond the immediate issue of whether the horsepox work should have been performed (or published), the horsepox synthesis story highlights a more general challenge facing dual-use research in biotechnology: the unilateralist’s curse.” Research unilateralism contains an “action bias”: Horsepox synthesis is more likely to occur when scientists act independently than when they agree to a decision as a group.