Garage-lab bugs: spread of bioscience increases bioterrorism risks

movement has been aided by gear that can turn a backyard shed into a microbiology lab.

That has prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to reach out to amateur biologists, teaching them proper security measures and asking them to be vigilant of unscrupulous scientists.

The risk we’re seeing now is that these procedures are becoming easier to do,” said Edward You, who heads the outreach program at the FBI’s Directorate for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Biological weapons date back millennia. Rotting and plague-stricken corpses once were catapulted over besieged city walls. Wells were routinely poisoned. More recently, fears that terrorist groups such as al Qaeda might deploy weapons of mass destruction have kindled fears of bioterrorism. Those fears reached fever pitch in the months after the World Trade Center was downed, when anthrax-filled mail killed five people and prompted panic. This is when Washington started boosting spending on biodefense, improving security at laboratories that work with dangerous pathogens and stockpiling antidotes.

Last fall, President Barack Obama ordered the creation of a bioethics commission, and the group spent much of its first meeting parsing the threat of biological terrorism. He also issued an executive order earlier this month to beef up security for the most dangerous pathogens, which include anthrax, ebola, tularensis, smallpox, and the reconstructed 1918 Spanish flu bug.

Both houses of Congress have legislation in the works to strengthen the country’s ability to detect, prevent and, if necessary, recover from large-scale attacks using bioweapons.

Johnson notes that all the government attention comes despite the absence of known terrorist plots involving biological weapons. According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, al Qaeda last actively tried to work with bioweapons — specifically anthrax — before the 2001 invasion of that uprooted its leadership from Afghanistan.

In fact, some experts argue that the sheer size of the U.S. anti-bioterrorism effort is itself creating bioterrorism dangers because this effort involves the training of thousands and thousands of additional scientists in the intricacies of making such weapons, the opening of new labs, the creation and storage of vast amounts of bioterrorism-related materials, and more (“Anti-bioterror programs may make U.S. more vulnerable,” 14 November 2008 HSNW; and “Worrying about wrong threat weakens U.S. bioterrorism preparedness,” 3 March 2008 HSNW).

While terrorists have on occasion used chemical weapons — such as chlorine and sarin gas — none has yet employed a biological agent, counterterrorism officials and bioweapons researchers say. The U.S. anthrax attacks were ultimately blamed on a U.S. scientist with access to military bioweapons programs.

This is why many experts caution that, despite scientific advances, it is still exceedingly tough for terrorists to isolate or create, mass produce, and deploy deadly bugs. Tens of thousands of Soviet scientists spent decades trying to weaponize pathogens, with mixed results. Though science has advanced greatly since the cold war, many of the same challenges remain.

I don’t think the threat is growing, but quite the opposite,” said Milton Leitenberg, a biological-weapons expert at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Advances in biological science and the proliferation of knowledge are a given, he said, but there has been no indication they are being used by terrorists. “The idea that four guys in a cave are going to create bioweapons from scratch — that will be never, ever, ever,” he said.