As rapid advances in biotechnology make it easier to develop and produce deadly organisms, experts are calling for better industry oversight to stop that progress benefiting criminals and terrorists.
Hundreds of research laboratories are springing up around the world as costs and development times tumble and scientists compete to create products with commercial potential for medicine or food production.
In 2002 it took five years to develop the genomic sequence of a polio virus. Three years later it took a week for a team the same size to do the same on a virus of similar length.
Such rapid progress has left policymakers wondering how to ensure security in a disparate, thinly regulated industry -- a concern that surfaced at a weekend conference in Morocco where experts considered the threat of pandemics and major biological incidents in the Middle East and North Africa.
"There are so many advances in bacteriology and gene sequencing leading to the possibility of designing genes -- that is what is driving the concern," said Tim Trevan of the International Council for the Life Sciences (ICLS).
Organisms could be genetically manipulated to defeat vaccines, mild diseases could be turned into deadly ones and lethal viruses and bacteria might be created from scratch.
Equipment such as micro-reactors, flow reactors and disposable reactors to produce useable volumes of complex molecules were not even available 10 years ago.
"You want something very infectious if you aim to bring down society," said Trevan. "Whether you kill people or incapacitate them it doesn't really matter, as long as there is a major effect. This could all theoretically be engineered genetically."
A BIOTECH CHERNOBYL?
Potentially dangerous organisms tend to be harder to spot at the development stage than nuclear materials.
"You are talking about people and knowledge -- you're not going to just spring into a laboratory and find incriminating material," said ICLS President Terence Taylor.
He pointed to documents recovered from al Qaeda which had showed the group was considering developing biological weapons.
"If there is a serious, catastrophic incident involving the use of biotechnology, that will hold up the science like Chernobyl did with nuclear," said Taylor. "That's why we need to worry now."
Nuclear technology remains mostly in the hands of governments and heavily regulated state enterprises. In contrast, advanced biotechnology is already seeping into the consumer mainstream.
Taylor said parts of the private sector had taken a lead in building safeguards. One industry body, the International Association for Synthetic Biology, had developed software to allow its members to screen their customers.
Conference delegates called for better regulation and more cross-border collaboration to detect and ward off biological threats and share best practices.
Attacks involving anthrax-laced letters in the United States in 2001 killed five people, including two U.S. Postal Service workers from a facility in Washington, D.C., and made 13 sick. Thousands were given antibiotics to prevent disease.
In 1995, Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult killed 12 people in a Sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system.
"The thinking is out there and it is naive to assume some people are not exploiting available technology," said Taylor.
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