Beware of Genetic Bioviolence

Beware of Genetic Bioviolence

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 9, 2007 in DNA Around the World, DNA and the Law, Genetic Engineering

bioviolence barry kellmanIn contrast to James Watson and Freeman Dyson, Barry Kellman is a DNA pessimist and might I say, a scaremonger as well. Over the weekend, he warned us of the potential dark side of genetics in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s enough to make me think we need to shut down genetics research RIGHT NOW until we can enact enough laws to keep the malcontents and their biological weapons at bay. But, of course, all the fear is just build-up to…a new book!

Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime is slated to come out next month. The book summary makes it sound like a primer and directory for bioterrorists*:

  • What diseases should you use for “hostile purposes”? Smallpox, anthrax, or ebola.
  • Who can help you create disease weapons? Rogue States and groups like Al-Qaeda.
  • Who isn’t doing a good job of developing a strategy to “improve humanity’s security”? Law enforcers, scientists, public health officials, nations, and international organizations like the United Nations. Pretty much everyone!

At least one world leader is taking steps to protect his citizens – Russian President Vladimir Putin. :shock: What a star. Prof. Kellman tells us that President Putin has banned the export of human medical biological materials to ensure that his citizens’ genetic data won’t be used for making ethnic-specific biological weapons that can be aimed at them. Also consider this fair warning for people of Russian descent spread all over the world. In fact, if you’re of any ethnicity at all, be afraid, be very afraid:

It will soon be possible to manipulate viruses or bacteria so that they predominantly affect only Jews or Han Chinese or, yes, Russians. Even if that weapon affected only 10 or 20 percent of a group, the effects could be devastating.

Now he just had to go and mention the Chinese. Excuse me while I go don my biohazard suit.

*OK. I admit to tweaking it for satirical purposes.

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Comment by David Bradley

I’ve lost track of the number of scaremongering books I get asked to review. They seem to think I’d just take them on and tell the world about the wonderful words within. Trouble is 99.9% of those kinds of books are self published or worse just e-books. You have to wonder why…

I usually pass.


Comment by Hsien

David, This one probably isn’t that frivolous since it’s published right up the road from you at Cambridge University Press. I don’t really appreciate gloom and doom, although I’m sure people would just say I have my head in the sand or up my ***. heh

Comment by Sara

Ha! 100% awesome post. There’s always a market for fear, unfortunately.

Comment by Hsien
Comment by Andro Hsu

If it is valid for biomedical researchers to tout the development of personalized medicine tailored to your ethnicity and/or particular constellation of genetic variants, why shouldn’t it be valid to discuss the tailoring of biological weapons to same?

Comment by Hsien

Hi Andro,

Of course it’s valid! I was just poking fun at his sensationalistic tone. (Although I haven’t read the book, just his article in SF Chronicle.)

In my experience and optimistic viewpoint, the potential to do good with genetic science is far greater than doing bad. It’s so easy to get caught up in the what-if’s. I feel that my role is to drum up enthusiasm in the genome revolution instead of instilling fear. I’m also interested in raising awareness on issues like this but in a more moderated, careful way.

Comment by Hsien

And of course now I’m thinking I may be the next recipient of the Overselling Genomics Award.

/me begins to plan defense


[...] Terrorists alter the DNA in bacteria to create bioweapons and perpetrate mass genetic bioviolence on us [...]

Comment by Jonathan Eisen Subscribed to comments via email

Sorry, you have not crossed the threshold to get my next overselling genomics award. You are still rationale and reasonable. Calling out fearmongerers is different than saying people are being unethical if they do not accept that genome-based research is always good.

But you are welcome to point me to other things you may have written that oversell genomics. ;-)

Comment by Barry Kellman Subscribed to comments via email

Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei,

Perhaps you might consider actually READING my book; you might find it to be very different from your characterization. Or, you might ask the long list of experts who have read it and concur that it is anything but fearmongering.
Unfortunately, serious discussion of important issues too often gets hijacked by those who see only danger in scientific progress and others who deny that there are any dangers at all. The reasoned middle gets drowned out by the polarized and uninformed.
If anyone who reads this blog is interested in analysis of these important matters, I would look forward to comments.

–Barry Kellman

Comment by Hsien

Barry, Thanks for your comment. I admitted above that I hadn’t read your book (although I would if you sent me a copy ;) ). I got the impression that you were fearmongering from your Chronicle piece and it seems to me that others agree.

I do not deny there are risks to genetic technology (see my post today on mandatory DNA registration of everyone in the UK). My biggest concern is the way such risks are presented. But then again, my optimism does tend to get the better of me.


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