August 27, 2004 · Richard Posner
In an article in WIRED called Insanely Destructive Devices, Larry Lessig discusses one of the greatest of possible techno-disasters, a terrorist-engendered smallpox epidemic. What gives it a technological dimension is that experiments have shown that genetic alteration of the smallpox virus, utilizing biotechnological techniques and equipment that are inexpensive and widely available, including in Third World countries, could make the “juiced up” virus not only more lethal than “ordinary smallpox” (which kills a “mere” 30 percent of its victims) but also, and more important, impervious to smallpox vaccines (and there is no cure for smallpox). Smallpox is highly contagious and because its initial symptoms are not distinctive, the disease could spread so far, for example by aerosolizers placed in major airports around the world, before it was discovered that quarantining would be instituted too late to be effective, even if health workers and security personnel could be induced, without vaccine protection, to enforce a quarantine. (There is a full discussion in Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book Catastrophe: Risk and Response.)
Lessig despairs of being able to come up with a technological or regulatory solution to this threat. Instead he suggests, with unmistakable reference to the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, that we should foreswear “our present course of unilateral cowboyism” which is “produc[ing] generations of angry souls seeking revenge on us”; we should “focus on ways to eliminate the reasons to annihilate us.” I don’t think so. The “reasons” are too various. Think of the Unabomber; what could we have done to remove his particular grievance? Think of the Islamist terrorists, for whom Western values, including the emancipation of women, are our greatest offense. And of course once we decide that the way to prevent terrorism is to change our way of life, we create new incentives for people who want us to change our way of life to resort to terrorism.
Lessig’s is a counsel of despair, and is premature. Although it is extremely difficult to prevent bioterrorism, it should not be impossible to reduce the risk of it substantially. Measures include an international organization patterned on the International Atomic Energy Agency (a solution the Administration has resisted), stricter restrictions on access to laboratory supplies of lethal pathogens and toxins–and such simple measures as not allowing airports to install aerosol fresheners, as they are doing–and nothing would be easier than for a terrorist to switch such a freshener with an aerosol dispenser containing a lethal pathogen.
Yet there is the standard, and very serious, dual-use dilemma. To develop effective vaccines against variants of lethal pathogens such as the smallpox virus, we need to create samples of these variants, these “juiced up,” bio-reingineered bacteria and viruses, and these sample are potential weapons and the techniques used to create them are techniques that bioterrorists could utilize. The more people we train to create new vaccines, the more people there are with knowledge that can be put to evil uses.
The solution to this dilemma is not obvious, but one possibility is to shift much of the research on new vaccines from open university facilities to closed university affiliates, such as MIT’s Lincoln Labs, which conduct classified research under more secure conditions that found or feasible in the ordinary university setting.