When envelopes containing the bacterial spores that cause anthrax started arriving in media offices and on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2001, a new era in biological warfare began. To pinpoint the source of the attacks, federal agents quickly sought out specialists to perform cutting-edge molecular fingerprinting on the ultrafine powdered spores. That evidence, which helped the government to finger a lone army scientist as the culprit, is now being reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Yet the essential lessons of the episode—that biological weapons are no longer just a battlefield risk and that innovative cooperation between law enforcement and science works—appear to have been forgotten already.
When it comes to countering the threat of biological weapons, most governments, including that of the U.S., are still mired in a decades-old nuclear-arms model geared toward preventing hostile nations from acquiring closely guarded weapons-making materials. It is an approach unsuited to the modern reality wherein nonstate actors are more likely than states to use biological warfare agents and the growth of biotechnology is only making those weapons easier to come by. Security experts have long warned that would-be terrorists no longer need to steal deadly pathogens when commonplace genetic engineering techniques could turn a benign microbe into a killer or synthetic biology tools might be used to build a virus from scratch.
Now subversives no longer have to make their own weapons at all—they can find sources with ready-made material online. In “Fake Botox, Real Threat,” on page 84, Ken Coleman and Raymond A. Zilinskas point to a proliferation of international counterfeiters cashing in on the craze for the wrinkle-smoothing drug Botox, whose active ingredient botulinum neurotoxin is one of the deadliest poisons on earth. Many of the sales take place through Web sites, and most of the counterfeits contain real toxin, meaning that basement brewers may already be cultivating lethal toxin-making bacteria to satisfy avid consumer demand. The authors ask, What is to stop those criminals from simply selling pure toxin to terrorists instead? In fact, what is to stop terrorists themselves from getting into the bootleg Botox business, for profit and easy access to toxin?
The problem is not limited to botulinum toxin. In January a report from the Henry L. Stimson Center policy think tank in Washington, D.C., noted that other items on the government’s “select agent” list of potential bioweapons, such as ricin and tetrodotoxin, are also being developed as pharmaceuticals to treat cancer and relieve pain. If one of these new drugs becomes wildly popular, will yet another select agent inspire a new wave of illicit Internet entrepreneurs?
Balkanized federal controls over these dual-use substances exacerbate the problem, the report contends. Whereas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strictly monitors botulinum toxin used in research, that agency’s oversight ends once the toxin is in a pharmaceutical formulation. Then, the Food and Drug Administration only has to ensure the product’s safety for patients, not for the general public as potential terror targets.
The specter of global e-commerce in a bioweapon-turned-beauty-product is the latest reminder that the world has continued to change rapidly since 2001. In an age when FBI agents are using Twitter and Facebook to catch criminals, U.S. bioweapons policy needs to keep up with the times. Coleman and Zilinskas advocate a proactive approach to the bogus Botox issue that could have wider applications. International collaborations between law enforcement and scientists to obtain counterfeit samples for molecular fingerprinting could help identify the illegal producers, who seem to be mainly in Asia and the former Soviet Union, and might allow the relevant governments to move in and shut them down. More innovative cooperation is needed now, before another biological weapons attack happens, to reduce the risk that it will.
This article was originally published with the title Terror in a Vial.