"I don't think that the biological community, particularly in academia, is yet sensitized enough to thinking about the implications." - scientific adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Biologists warned to exercise greater vigilance
International Herald Tribune Wednesday, November 7, 2001
A scientific adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned biologists Tuesday they should become less naive to prevent the risk of their work being abused for terrorist purposes.
"Our colleagues in the physics community have long understood the application of physics in weaponry," George Poste said in an interview during a pharmaceutical conference.
Mr. Poste, a member of the U.S. Defense Science Board of scientists and industrialists, which advises Mr. Rumsfeld on scientific developments, said biology should "lose its innocence."
"Biologists have got to start being a little more savvy with regard to thinking about less well-intentioned individuals than themselves," he said. "I don't think that the biological community, particularly in academia, is yet sensitized enough to thinking about the implications."
Mr. Poste warned that in many instances there was an "absolute naivety" among biologists working in academia regarding the potential adverse use of some of the work being done.
Mr. Poste, chief executive officer of the consulting firm Health Technology Networks and former head of research at SmithKline Beecham, said detecting clandestine activity in biology was more difficult for intelligence agencies than detecting attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Illustrating biology's potential for both good and evil, he explained how Australian scientists trying to develop a contraceptive vaccine for rodents had inadvertently created a lethal "mousepox" virus using technology that could be applied to biological warfare.
The experiment, reported earlier this year by pest control researchers in Canberra, involved modifying a mousepox virus to include the gene for interleukin-4, which affects the immune system. Mr. Poste said the well-intentioned research project completely shut down the immune system, allowing the virus to "run amok."
"This immediately raises the issue of the same being put into other viruses, and particularly whether that would create a devastating weapon," he said.
Mr. Poste said that the publication of the research findings in the February issue of the Journal of Virology raised the next issue as to how far certain categories of biological information may eventually have to be classified.