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Brad Arnold: Individuals can now construct highly contagious virus

This letter to you is like the letter Dr. Albert Einstein wrote to United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939. Dr. Einstein wrote, "…it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large quantity of uranium…," and "…it is conceivable…that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed."

This letter is to inform you that it is possible to set up a biological chain reaction with a highly contagious construct virus, and it is conceivable that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed by individuals.

"A virus that has been engineered in the laboratory is called a recombinant virus. This is because its genetic material-DNA or RNA-has genes in it that come from other forms of life. These foreign genes have been inserted into the virus's genetic material through the process of recombination. The term construct is also used to describe it, because the virus is constructed of parts and pieces of genetic code-it is a designer virus, with a particular purpose." (The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston, 2002, page 220)

"In truth, it is possible to imagine a malicious use for virtually any biological research or production site. The difference between a lab for producing lifesaving vaccines and one capable of making deadly toxins is largely one of intent." ("Terrorism and the Biology Lab" by Henry C. Kelly, New York Times, July 2, 2003)

I estimate it is over ten times easier to construct a highly contagious virus than it is to enrich uranium using the gas centrifuge method.

I estimate it is over ten times easier to set up a biological chain reaction with a highly contagious virus than it is to set up a nuclear chain reaction with a sufficient quantity of enriched uranium.

I estimate it is over ten times easier for a terrorist to deliver a highly contagious virus than a nuclear bomb. A virus can be easily smuggled because it is small and nonmetallic, and can be used as seed stock to culture an unlimited number of bombs.

I estimate there are over one million people with the technical knowledge and access to the necessary lab equipment to construct a highly contagious virus. That number is growing.

"The main thing that stands between the human species and the creation of a supervirus is a sense of responsibility among individual biologists."
The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston, page 227

P.S. Below is an open letter, of which Dr Osterholm of CIDRAP wrote "…very articulate commentary is right on target…," and Dr Solomon of CSIS wrote "Your concerns are justified." Both are Bioterrorism experts.

To: Henry C. Kelly
President of the Federation of American Scientists
Washington, DC

Mr. Kelly:

I read your opinion piece in the July 2nd edition of the New York Times entitled Terrorism and the Biology Lab. I am writing you because your writing didn't go far enough with the concepts you introduced.

You write "Within a few years it may be possible for an inexperienced graduate student with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment to download the gene structure of smallpox, insert sequences known to increase infectiousness or lethality, and produce enough material to threaten millions of people."

Yet, "American scientists did it earlier in the year to prove to complacent policy makers just how simple it is." Furthermore, "Anyone with a biology degree, a credit card, and access to the web could produce a lethal biological agent." http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/sciences/story/0,12243,858011,00.html
The Beginner's Guide to Bioterrorism

You write "Unless they get involved at high levels of policy-making, there's a grave risk that another bioweapons scare like the anthrax mailings of 2001 will drive Washington to create that inevitable product of bureaucratic panic…a set of regulations that would strangle biological research while doing little to thwart real security threats."

Yet, "An attack on the United States with biological weapons could threaten vital nation security interests. Massive civilian casualties, breakdown in essential institutions, violation of democratic processes, civil disorder, loss of confidence in the government and reduced US strategic flexibility abroad are among the ways a biological attack might compromise US security." Furthermore, "Should a contagious bioweapons pathogen be used, containing the spread of disease will present significant ethical, political, cultural, operational and legal challenges." http://www.homelandsecurity.org/darkwinter/index.cfm

You write "Unless biologists start moving in the right direction on security, they will have only themselves to blame if Washington starts moving in the wrong one." In my opinion, any system of security that depends upon individual ethics to deal with potentially dangerous research is doomed to failure. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Nuclear blindness is the mistaken belief that the bigger the bang the more powerful the weapon. A contagious bioweapon is a bomb that keeps on exploding through the population at a geometric rate. The current state of affairs is analogical to every person with a biology degree having the ability to build a nuclear bomb out of everyday equipment. Such a situation is unstable and bound to explode.

Brad Arnold,
St. Louis Park, Minnesota, USA