The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the slippery slope of censorship – Part 3 – The Holey Security Blanket

I suggested in the first blog in this series that some of the members of the NSABB wanted to censor the two reports about easily transmissible H5N1 due to blind, unreasoning fear.

Why blind? Because the members do not understand where the real risks of biological weapons come from. For starters, they don’t appear to know how modern biological weapons are likely to be built. Even though smallpox is supposedly contained in exactly two freezers, one in Russia and one in the US, it could be reconstructed from sequence alone. How? With a DNA synthesizer, a machine which can make genes based on whatever sequence is typed into a computer. These machines are to modern biological weapons what gas centrifuges are to nuclear weapons: highly complex enabling machinery.

So, given the hysteria about merely publishing H5N1 sequences, one might ask: What kind of strict safeguards are there to prevent DNA synthesizers from falling into the wrong hands? The answer:

None.

You can buy them on ebay. I kid you not.

The gas centrifuges of the biological weapons world can be had by anyone for the less than the price of a Lexus with absolutely no questions asked. Where was the NSABB when the decison was made to let anyone, anywhere buy machines that could produce the nastiest virus anyone could think of?

The NSABB members are not reasoning correctly. If they want to stop biological weapons production, they should stop the export of the machines that will be used to make them.

Right now, all they are accomplishing is stopping the spread of knowledge that could be used to protect against weaponised flu.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the slippery slope of censorship – Part 3 – The Holey Security Blanket

  1. gsgs

    what’s a Lexus, how much does it cost ?
    You can really create RNA of >2000 mucleotides just from the sequences ?

    But how to fold them, assemble 8 of them into a flu virus, add the envelope ,
    put it into a cell ? How many are needed ?

    Presumably you would take an existing flu-virus, infect a cell with it, put the additional
    artificial segments into the cell and hope for reassortment ?

    So, then the Kawaoka-approach should be easier

  2. monotreme1000

    gsgs, a Lexus is a car. They range in price, but about $40,000.

    Yes, you really can create a virus just from sequences. See this paper for detailed instructions:
    Production of infectious poliovirus from synthetic viral genomes.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22328434

  3. gsgs

    sounds complicated, even for Polio.
    And influenza is 8 segments and enveloped
    and how to produce the nucleocapsids and the hundreds of
    HA- and NA- spices at the surface ?
    You must put the 8 genetic RNA segment into another existing flu-virus.
    How else ?
    And then the genetic RNA-segments must be surrounded and packed
    into nucleocapsids.

    Better put all the artificial segments (if they can be created, which I also doubt)
    into one cell which is already infected with flu and then hope for picking
    the new segments when assembling the new virions ?!?

  4. monotreme1000

    gsgs, it is complicated. If you don’t know anything about molecular biology. Just like insurance is complicated, if you don’t know anything about insurance. Anyone trying to do this will probably prefer to hire a skilled molecular biologist for whom many of these techniques will be routine. They probably won’t ask an insurance agent to do it.

    This kind of work won’t be done in a cave. But the skills required are found in many countries.

    re: flu. I think you have forgotten about the reconstruction of the 1918 virus.

    From: Resurrected Pandemic Influenza Viruses
    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.micro.091208.073359

    “With the advent of reverse genetics technology for influenza viruses in 1999, infectious virus could be rescued entirely from plasmid-cloned influenza gene segments without helper virus (21). This technology made it possible to produce influenza viruses with specific sequences. With the 1918 virus gene sequences completed, cDNAs were constructed by PCR using commercially synthesized overlapping deoxyoligonucleotides corresponding to the published sequence of the 1918 influenza virus and subcloned into plasmids for virus rescue (7). In 2005, following completion of the 1918 virus coding region sequence, a reconstructed influenza virus containing all eight gene segments from the H1N1 pandemic virus was generated for the first time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (103).”

    • gsgs

      hmm, it was constructed entirely from the sequences alone ? And it is available
      for research ? You can buy it ?
      I know, they are using that 1934 virus for vaccine experiments.
      But maybe they had frozen the virus and it was reactivated.
      It doesn’t seem to be a common and easy strategy to generate
      a whole flu-virus from sequences alone. How often was it done ?

      It seems to be a lot easier and “promising” to mix 2 viruses
      and let them reassort. As Kawaoka did with Mexflu and H5N1.
      You could just take the 1918 virus and insert a new HA into it
      that we have no immunity for. Had it been tried ?
      The Kawaoka virus (7*Mexflu + HA from H5N1) was not very
      virulent in ferrets but this may quickly change with some
      mutations or new segments …
      If I were a terrorist, I would just get a duck-swine-farm
      and let H5N1 reassort with mexflu or Eurasion H1N1 in
      closed stables. Put some ferrets in occasionally.
      And maybe some prisoners, who cares.
      Good flu-mixing is the key to terrorist success.

  5. monotreme1000

    gsgs, yes, you can buy genes commercially. Here are some companies:

    http://www.genscript.com/gene_synthesis.html
    http://www.genewiz.com/public/gene-synthesis.aspx
    http://www.operon.com/products/gene-synthesis/synthetic-genes.aspx

    One would hope that they would hesistate to sell the 1918 viral genes to someone living in a cave in Yemen. But who knows.

    The current danger is not terrorists who are largely ignorant of basic biology. The real danger comes from COUNTRIES who can acquire the machines necessary to create an unlimited supply of weapons of mass destruction for less than the price of a luxury car.

    With DNA synthesis machines, COUNTRIES can make as many viral weapons as they want, privately, without going through pesky online ordering websites.

  6. gsgs

    easier than just “ferreting it out” , as Fouchier did ?
    Countries could just repeat the Fouchier experiment.

    estimate the difficulty/cost

    1.) repeat the Fouchier experiment to get the virus with the mutations from an infected ferret
    2.) to create the virus from the eventually published mutations

  7. monotreme1000

    Fouchier did introduce some mutations in the virus before it went ferret to ferret. Introducing all of the changes he found would not be difficult. Repeating his experiments would also not be difficult in terms of the molecular biology.

    For either approach 1 or 2, the main costs are in the animal care and BSL facilities. These can be quite expensive depending on a country’s animal care regulations and safety stringency. You may find it interesting to know that it would be extremely difficult to do these experiments in Germany due to the almost impossible-to-meet regulations for this type of work there. In China, it would be much cheaper due to few enforced regulations for either animal care or safety.

    The main reason why terrorists are unlikely to do this work is that you need a considerable infrastructure to safely handle the viruses and house the animals. The animals would need to be infected under very carefully controlled conditions and monitored by professional veterinarians to be certain that the virus was being transmitted by aerosols.

    I saw video of alleged al Qaeda members doing Chemical warfare experiments on dogs. It was very crude. The people doing this were obviously morons who had no idea what they were doing. Those idiots could never do this sort of work.

    With a DNA sequencer, any technologically advanced country can produce any virus it wants in whatever quantities it wants, whether the virus exists in nature or not. At this time, no cave-dwelling terrorist is likely to be able to do this.

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