Bioplague [was Re: Son of Star Wars]

Robert J. Bradbury (
Wed, 6 Oct 1999 15:23:25 -0700 (PDT)

On Wed, 6 Oct 1999, David Lubkin wrote:

> What scares me is biological warfare. The scenario in Clancy's _Rainbow
> Six_. Find or engineer a biological agent that has a very high mortality
> rate and a fairly long incubation period. Spread it through airports or
> (inter)national events. Better still, develop and release several
> different agents, or different versions of the same agent (perhaps with
> different transmission vectors) -- making it more difficult for society to
> cope with.
> For all we know such a scenario has already occurred, and we are still in
> the incubation period.

Yep, but pretty doubtful.

> Please, Bob, convince me that this can't happen....

If are asking me, I generally go by Robert (no apology required), I'll try to comment.

The general anti-biowarfare argument is that it is difficult to keep the plague from infecting the source. Even if you solve that problem, in the scenario you outline there is a good chance the collapse of world services would be so great that you would drive even the country that had planned for it back to the bronze-age. We are extremely interconnected in ways we don't see unless we think about it really hard. [Where did the arsenic that was used to dope the silicon in the chip that sits in your computer actually come from? etc.] If you weren't *very* careful about it (making a bioweapon expire after a certain time period) it wouldn't be safe for you to go anywhere on the planet.

It would be very very difficult to engineer a bioweapon that had specificity for people you considered your "enemies" (it would have to essentially sequence their DNA or have to respond in a highly specific way to a protein found in those individuals). Slightly, but *only* slightly, easier would be "time-delay" bioweapons. You have to have something that multiplies very slowly (which gives your immune system time to detect it and develop defenses against it) or something that hides very effectively (Mycoplasma like those causing TB can do this) or something that goes through rapid transformations (e.g. the malaria parasite) or something that mutates very rapidly (like HIV). Then you have to have a some switch that causes it to go from "stealth" mode to "kill" mode (there are bacterial viruses (phage) that do this and to a lesser degree herpes viruses). Then you really have to have arial transmission if you want it to spread effectively. I believe that the Nobel prize winner Joshua Lederberg is on record of being quite afraid that HIV might develop the ability to spread by air. However I'm pretty sure that HIV is an enveloped virus (stealing your cell membranes on leaving a cell) and so it is rather fragile and probably difficult to transmit by air. If you are dealing with viruses then you probably want to use a non-enveloped virus that already infects the respiratory tract. The problem is that those viruses have pretty small genomes and so your ability to engineer them for long incubation times and letality may be quite limited. Engineering something like a bigger viral capsid so you can have a bigger genome (more control elements and effectors) is way beyond our current abilities.

So while we have examples of some of the functionality required, I very much doubt the knowledge and resources currently exist to engineer the type of "bug" required. You could begin to think about this maybe in 5 years or so when the technology gets much better and much more knowledge has accumulated. You *still* however have to solve the specificity problem and the expiration problem. You might be able to get around these by vaccinating yourself or engineering your own cells to produce a "suppressor". But you may be on a slippery slope because you have to remember that anything based on Nature's self-replicating machines is designed to eventually mutate!

Also, you have to consider that as our technology & knowledge increases, so does our ability to respond quickly. We have the sequencing capacity, X-ray machines, molecular modeling programs, etc. that now allow *very* rapid dissassembly of "new" bugs. Unless you make your bug kill everyone at the same time we stand to have very good chances of finding and disassembling the "bomb" and developing some kind of response to it. And once we solve that problem you can be pretty sure that we are going to be pretty upset. I've discussed this problem regarding SIs going to "war" with each other. The problem with using WoMD in environments where nanotech exists is that you have to make damn sure that you wipe out every last speck of intelligent machines with the ability to self-assemble. Similarly with bioweapons you had better make sure that you get every last individual of whomever you are targeting. Because if someone is alive to return the favor, your life is going to be at risk forever. This is why the "Mutually Assured Destruction" solution to the nuclear weapons problem has worked. Its hell to live in that environment but so far it seems to have worked.

So, I think these are tough nuts to crack using "dumb" bacteria or even dumber viruses. Now, using "intelligent" nanotech however they become easier. The problem would then be that your body isn't exactly a wonderful environment in which nanobots built from hard nanotech could replicate themselves. So then you either have to infect everyone individually or develop micro-sized nanobot factories that can be assembled by a nanobot in-vivo. Those things are a long way off.

In the long run however these developments are things we do need to think about (if you look at moves by the U.S. government they suggest they are aware of your scenario to some degree but aren't talking about it). It would be interesting to know whether we have a biolab with P4 containment hidden under a mountain or in a submarine someplace where the people have agreed to lock themselves in "forever". And one can certainly wonder what genomes *have* been sequenced by the military that aren't in the public databases.

Ultimately I suspect we will get to the point where we have to have nanobot immune systems. It will be interesting to see if and how Robert F. handles this in future volumes of Nanomedicine.

I think the reason we have a bunch of "plague" books out is that the general population doesn't know enough to find the holes in them. To stumble over something like Ebola that is fatal to us (while presumably living quite comfortably in its natural host) is simply one of the risks of populating the entire planet. To engineer something with the qualities required for a good bioweapon seems quite beyond our capabilities and knowledge at this time.