In labs across the U.S. and Europe, dozens of geneticists are working to create stealthy viruses that can deliver artificially engineered payloads into cells without detection by the immune system. Other scientists have experimented with the influenza A pathogen and discovered that an infectious virus can be assembled from just eight short loops of DNA, easily synthesized by a machine. A year ago we would only have marveled at the ingenuity of such researchers, who after all are simply trying to perfect gene therapies for inherited diseases and to find new drugs for contagious illnesses.
Now, having witnessed the first attack with biological weapons against the U.S. government and media--albeit a clumsy and poorly aimed attack--biologists are more aware of the other edge of the swords they forge. With recipes for a vaccine and effective drugs in hand, the world can deal with anthrax and 11 more of the 50 naturally occurring bioagents that make the most likely weapons. Advances to come will probably offer some protection against the remaining 38 agents. At the moment, the defense has the advantage.
This article was originally published with the title Innocence Lost.