Perspectives - Terror in a Vial; June 2010; Scientific American Magazine; by The Editors; 1 Page(s)
When envelopes containing the bacterial spores that cause anthrax started arriving in media offices and on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2001, a new era in biological warfare began. To pinpoint the source of the attacks, federal agents quickly sought out specialists to perform cutting-edge molecular fingerprinting on the ultrafine powdered spores. That evidence, which helped the government to finger a lone army scientist as the culprit, is now being reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Yet the essential lessons of the episode—that biological weapons are no longer just a battlefield risk and that innovative cooperation between law enforcement and science works—appear to have been forgotten already.
When it comes to countering the threat of biological weapons, most governments, including that of the U.S., are still mired in a decades-old nuclear-arms model geared toward preventing hostile nations from acquiring closely guarded weapons-making materials. It is an approach unsuited to the modern reality wherein nonstate actors are more likely than states to use biological warfare agents and the growth of biotechnology is only making those weapons easier to come by. Security experts have long warned that would-be terrorists no longer need to steal deadly pathogens when commonplace genetic engineering techniques could turn a benign microbe into a killer or synthetic biology tools might be used to build a virus from scratch.