Let’s leave aside geopolitical considerations for the moment and consider what would happen if a country wanted to use gene synthesis to create an untraceable highly lethal, highly infectious virus, which, as I described in my blog yesterday, is eminently doable. We have people watching for that, right?
As it turns out, no, I don’t think we do.
Military strategists spend a lot of time thinking about how to blow things up and how to keep their men and material from getting blown up. That is, after all, what most wars involve. Military planners have some idea about chemical weapons, mostly because these were used in WWI, but also because there were reasons to think that they might be used in subsequent wars. Thinking about biological weapons is much less developed, in my opinion. One reason for this is because both chemical and biological agents are conceived of as primarily either battlefield (tactical) weapons or as tools for terrorists. Biological agents are not particularly useful on the battlefield because they will dissipate in the wind. Terrorists do not have the technical expertise to use the most lethal biological weapons and could kill far more people with conventional weapons than they could with the biological agents they are likely to be able to develop themselves.
What is lacking in military thinking about biological agents is the idea that they could be used as strategic weapons. The US, the Soviet Union, and China all have had aggressive, offensive biological weapons programs. Although the US gave this program up, it reserved the right to respond to a biological attack with nuclear weapons. The idea is that this neutralises the threat of a biological strategic attack as any nation-state which conducted such an attack would be immediately vaporised. However, there is an unstated assumption behind this doctrine: that we would know we were under attack. Until recently, this was true. But it isn’t, now.
If smallpox were released in the United States, the assumption would be that Russia was responsible, either directly, or indirectly by giving the virus to terrorists. This is because smallpox is extinct in nature. Supposedly, it only exists in freezers in Russia and in the US. However, the truth is that any country with gene synthesis capability could recreate smallpox. That would include China and a growing list of other countries. Still, if smallpox were released, we would know that we were under attack from someone.
The 1918 flu virus was recreated from sequence alone (Tumpey et al. 2005). The virus itself had been extinct. There was concern that publicising the sequence of this virus could result in bad actors releasing the virus as a weapon. However, as with a smallpox release, we would know that we were under attack because the virus is extinct in nature. Indeed, the “seasonal” H1N1 flu is thought by many virologists to have come from a Chinese bioweapons lab because its sequence was almost identical to one that had been extinct in nature (New York Times, November 29, 1992). But suppose someone were to use gene synthesis to create a dangerous new flu virus? How would we know that it had happened?
Well, we wouldn’t. Gene synthesis would leave no fingerprints.
So how do we know that H5N1 or the new H1N1 didn’t come from a Chinese bioweapons program, as “seasonal” H1N1 likely did? We don’t. Is someone in the US intelligence or defense community considering this possibility? No, I don’t think they are. And here’s why.
The United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) could reasonably be actively researching this possibility. But they have had some problems.
In October 2001, several Americans were killed in anthrax attacks. Almost immediately, suspicion descended on Steven Hatfill, a scientist at USAMRIID. He seemed like a credible suspect. However, after a lengthy, difficult investigation, the Justice department changed their mind:
From CNN, June 27, 2008:
A former Army scientist who was named a “person of interest” in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks has reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the Justice Department.
Well, if it wasn’t Hatfill, who was it? Time to investigate another USAMRIID scientist, Dr. Bruce Ivens. However, just as he was about to be arrested:
From CNN, August 1, 2008:
Aside from being a gift to conspiracy theorists, these investigations have probably not been good for morale, or recruitment, at USAMRIID. Since there have been at least two credible suspects for the anthrax attacks at USAMRIID, one wonders a bit about their ability to attract the best and the brightest. So, I would not count on cutting edge advice from this group. But not to worry, they get advice from two other important institutions.
From the USAMRIID web site:
We participate in support of emerging disease investigations, working alongside colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
The CDC apparently does single tube PCR to diagnose panflu despite spending millions on high-throughput machines. Very expensive doorstops, I guess. So, they aren’t exactly cutting edge. Does Director Frieden even know what gene synthesis is? Based on my recent interaction with a senior member of the public health establishment, I have my doubts.
And the WHO? Well, other than having a Director who was sponsored by the Communist Party of China, what’s to worry about? After all, no-one has any concerns about China’s strategic intentions, do they? Well, aside from Secretary of Defense Gates and National Intelligence Director Blair.
When Dr. Adrian Gibbs, a world-renowned Australian scientist who played a critical role in the discovery of Tamiflu, suggested that the new H1N1 may have come from a laboratory, both the CDC and the WHO dismissed his claims completely. Not only that, but they suppressed his report. I don’t know how credible his claims were since his report was not published, but I do know that any hint of anomalies in the new H1N1 sequences should be vigorously investigated because if the virus was tampered with, the only evidence would be very indirect. If the CDC and the WHO are so sure he was wrong, why not allow his findings to be published so that other scientists could evaluate them for themselves? Suppression of data is, in itself, reason for concern.
But perhaps even more important than the claims Dr. Gibbs made is the response of the WHO and the CDC. They hated his suggestion of even a possibility that the virus might come from a laboratory. They and their surrogates attacked him viciously. And these are the institutions that the US military is counting on to give us a heads up on bioweapons?
Sadly, there is a disconnect between the people who understand the threat posed by millions of goose-stepping soldiers with a brand new deep water Navy and the people who are supposed to warn them about biological threats.
And I don’t know how to fix it.