Are Manmade Viruses the Next Big Terrorist Threat?

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A devastating string of mass shootings has left the country reeling this year. But an even greater threat may be looming in the near future, one with the potential to cause far more widespread injury and loss of life: synthetically modified diseases designed to infect human beings on a global scale.

That's the danger that best-selling author and futurist Rob Reid predicts could arise from the field of synthetic biology, which combines biology and engineering to create artificial biological systems, from genetically-modified crops to custom viruses.

Synthetic biologists have been modifying the DNA of pathogens with alarming speed and efficacy over the last decade, Reid notes, opening up a new frontier in virology, public health and global security.

"I'm a big SynBio fan," says Reid, who believes in the promising applications of DNA modification, such as solutions for climate change and breakthroughs in life extension. "But there's a dark side to it."

In the wrong hands, he warns, this technology could create a weapon with the potential to inflict catastrophic damage on an unprecedented scale. And unlike recent acts of localized terror, such as the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and this summer's shooting at a local Walmart in El Paso—events that killed or injured dozens or hundreds of victims at a time—a synthetic biological agent has the potential to travel around the world, putting billions of people at serious risk.

A Proliferating Threat

Reid's prediction, laid out in a TED talk earlier this year, isn't just the stuff of speculative sci-fi. Synthetic biology has already waded into impressive—and controversial—territory.

In 2011, for instance, virologists in both Holland and Wisconsin successfully altered the DNA of the deadly H5N1 virus (commonly known as "bird flu") to make the naturally-occurring virus, which under normal conditions isn't easily spread from person to person, more transmissible. Their goal was to proactively study an extreme version of the virus, in case one emerged from nature organically in the future. At the time, microbial geneticist Paul Keim, then chair of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said, "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one."

Since then, the development of a game-changing power tool for DNA editing called CRISPR makes it possible to carry out this kind of gene modification more easily, and far more cheaply, by hundreds of people, with less oversight than a well-regulated laboratory. "Radically powerful editing that the entire field of biology would have found impossible 10 years ago can now be done by a couple smart grad students" in a tiny room, Reid says.

And the technology is proliferating in a way that even nuclear weapons haven't, Reid adds—with more decentralization and far less oversight.

Now consider the form of these technological breakthroughs. The genome for a flu virus is roughly 10,000 letters long, a sequence that could fit on a handful of pages. The code the Dutch scientists developed for their beefed-up H5N1 virus is even smaller than that—and could fit on a Post-it Note.

The nightmare scenario that Reid envisions goes something like this: In the next few years, an ambitious virologist uses widely-available gene-editing technology to create a supervirus—a pathogen 10 times as contagious as chicken pox and 10 times as deadly as the Ebola virus, but with an incubation period of, say, 10 months. Based on that programming, the entire world could be infected with the designer virus before the first person even shows symptoms.

Then, a hacker gains access to the scientist's computer and steals the genetic code. This lethal smidgen of data—a blueprint for a biological weapon—ends up floating around the internet, being swapped on torrent sites (a form of peer-to-peer file transfers) or sold on the dark web. Eventually, it could wind up in the hands of a rogue state, malicious actor or biological terrorist, who might use that code to manufacture a pathogen that could infect millions of people—in effect, turning our own bodies into tools for mass terror.

As of now, successfully manufacturing a virus based on that code would be difficult. But, as Reid points out, it's only a matter of time—perhaps 10 or 20 years—before DNA synthesizers become widespread in college and even high school biolabs, allowing virtually anyone to weaponize these blueprints.

"Wholesale Militarization"

The implications of these risks, scientists and experts say, are massive and urgent.
The creation of highly contagious viruses has left the world vulnerable to "the hostile misuse of the life sciences," argued researchers at the Disarmament Research Centre at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England in an article published on the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information website. The worst case scenario, according to the researchers: the "wholesale militarization of the life sciences."

That militarization seems more likely now than ever, according to Reid. As he points out, the U.S. is already struggling to keep up with staggering breaches of cybersecurity, such as the theft by Chinese hackers of technical documents related to the Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft program.

"If the United States military couldn't keep the plans of its F-35 program a secret," asks Reid, "then how in the world is a grad student, who can very easily create a pathogen for a homework assignment, going to keep all bad actors from getting access to this stuff?"

Top U.S. officials have confirmed that the intersection of cyber-espionage and synthetic biology creates an unprecedented risk.

"Cyber threats pose an increasing risk to public health, safety, and prosperity as cyber technologies are integrated with critical infrastructure in key sectors," noted Dan Coats, then director of national intelligence, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2017.

The threats, added Coats, who left the position in August, will only magnify as the country continues to rely on "potentially vulnerable automated systems"—technology that "increases the likely physical, economic, and psychological consequences of cyber attack and exploitation events."

Preventing Disaster

What synthetic biology experts are now asking is: What can we do to prevent this kind of doomsday scenario from happening?

One option is to ban synthetic biology altogether.

But, as Reid points out, an outright ban would be highly difficult, given that people can create pathogens in a lab the size of an RV, just as illicit drug manufacturers do today. Abandoning the field would also allow states like Russia, China, or North Korea to pursue the technology unchallenged, with potentially nefarious applications.

Instead, Reid suggests, we need to engineer a situation in which humanity enjoys the massive upsides of synthetic biology while avoiding cataclysmic destruction.
Two initiatives, he says, would help protect against that outcome.

The first is a massively distributed pathogen detector network—a system that would sequence the fragments of DNA cycling through our air and alert us to dangerous pathogens in the atmosphere on an ongoing basis.

If the U.S. devoted federal funding to a program like this, it could make sophisticated pathogen detectors as ubiquitous as smart phones are today over the coming decades. The program would pay for itself simply in the early detection of the common flu virus, Reid says.

The second approach is a disruptive extension to our country's biomanufacturing infrastructure.

In the event that a rogue actor releases a dangerous pathogen, scientists won't have months to study the virus, develop a vaccine and ship it to various cities from a handful of centralized locations, as they do today. Instead, Reid recommends that we adopt 3D printing technology to manufacture vaccines in pharmacies and doctor's offices, creating tens of thousands of distribution points around the country. This model would get vaccines into patients' hands much more rapidly, potentially saving countless lives.

To capitalize on these solutions, we have to begin investing in them now, Reid warns—before a synthetic supervirus arrives in the next 15 to 20 years.

"The Columbine kid isn't going to release this deadly pathogen tomorrow," Reid says. "The first person to do something awful with synthetic biology—and there will be such a person someday—might not even be born yet."

In other words, time is still on our side—for now.

Jordan Harbinger is the host of The Jordan Harbinger Show, where he deconstructs the playbooks of the world's most successful authors, entrepreneurs and artists. A recent episode featured an interview with Rob Reid.