Advances in life sciences may offer terrorists novel bioterror weapons

Published 3 February 2006

As is the case with other aspects of technology, the onward march of biotechnology holds both promise and peril

A committee of the U.S. National Academy of Science says advances in the life sciences have made it possible to manipulate living organisms in useful ways, leading to improvements in public health, agriculture, and other areas. There is a dark side, too, however. The panel points out the growing risk that biomedical advances will be used to make novel biological weapons or misused by careless groups and individuals. The panel has issued a new report outlining the risks and recommending ways of identifying and avoiding them.

As a start, the panel says the global scientific community should broaden its awareness of what bioterrorism can do. Panelist Joshua Epstein, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, emphasizes the importance of looking ahead and considering not merely current biomedical threats.

We are acutely aware that these technologies are developing at an unprecedented pace, that they are distributed globally, and that these trends — we only expect them to gain momentum,” he noted.

The group recommends creation of an independent advisory board to analyze and forecast these fast changing scientific and technological trends to keep U.S. intelligence and national security officials informed of potential life science threats.