Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Biological Weapons Threat Examined

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Biological Weapons Threat Examined

Article excerpt

The Senate and the House held hearings in December 2008 and January 2009, respectively, to examine the findings of the report A World at Risk, by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism. At the hearings, former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, the commission chair and vice chair, warned that "a terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction--nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological--is more likely than not to occur somewhere in the world in the next five years."

Graham and Talent argued that although the prospect of a nuclear attack is a matter of great concern, the threat of a biological attack poses the more immediate concern because of "the greater availability of the relevant dual-use materials, equipment, and know-how, which are spreading rapidly throughout the world."

That view was supported by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME). Both recognized that although biotechnology research and innovation have created the possibility of important medical breakthroughs, the spread of the research and the technological advancements that accompany innovations have also increased the risk that such knowledge could be used to develop weapons.

Graham and Talent acknowledged that weaponizing biological agents is still difficult and stated that "government officials and outside experts believe that no terrorist group has the operational capability to carry out a mass-casualty attack." The larger risk, they said, comes from rogue biologists, which is what is believed to have happened in the 2001 anthrax incidents. Currently, more than 300 research facilities in government, academia and the private sector in the United States, employing about 14,000 people, are authorized to handle pathogens. …

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