The DNA Bomb

Modified Crops are In the Crosshairs Now. You May Be Next.

"No physician can be involved in their creation any more than they can be involved in creating biological or chemical weapons, whose only purpose is to harm people," says George J. Annas of the Bioethics Society of Boston University and chair of the school's Health Law Department.

A proposal made at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science sought to adapt the Hippocratic oath—to "do no harm"—to encompass all scientific initiatives. It floundered in large part because so many biotech endeavors have dual uses—potential weapon or cure—that many participants worried a chill might set in. Instead, most scientists call for greater monitoring of biological research.

"If somebody decides to develop biological weapons, you're not going to detect it. Maybe our only response is defense," counters Alibek, the former Soviet biowarfare leader. "All the information you need you can get from the scientific journals."

Much gene work for weapons can fly under the radar as legitimate research, notes Alibek, who has done it himself. When the World Health Organization was preparing to eradicate smallpox, Alibek's team went about sequencing the virus's genes—ostensibly for future studies. The action was legal and open, but not its purpose. His laboratories' real objective, he later wrote, was to lay the groundwork for engineering "chimera viruses" that could evade vaccines or treatments.

His team inserted Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis genes into smallpox, and a later combination featured ectromelia. Tests on animals showed simultaneous symptoms of both diseases. The palette grew to include combinations with ebola, he reports. Alibek, a native of Kazakhstan now living in the U.S., writes in his book that he was so deep into the Soviet system that the contradiction between his Hippocratic oath and his daily military research didn't occur to him.

It's that kind of loose end that worries the White House official, who's paid to fret over the merely possible while assessing the probable. Sophisticated attacks like genetic assassinations are "not something we see in the near future," she says. "But we're only as good as our intelligence. That's something we can never forget, and in this case our intelligence has always been lacking. If it were perfect, we'd never have outbreaks of disease or terrorism."


Also in this week's Voice:

Up in Smoke
The Supreme Court recently decided against a California club that purchased marijuana for the ill. What effects will the ruling have? Sharon Lerner reports.

Beyond McVeigh
Missing papers, anonymous suspects, an unidentified leg—the McVeigh execution gets some mysteries thrown its way. James Ridgeway investigates.

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