Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Bioterror Trumps Nuclear Threat

A congressionally appointed commission has been grabbing headlines with its message that the threat of a bioterrorist attack outweighs the risk of a nuclear weapons attack. In its report, World at Risk, released today but in the press since Sunday, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Senator Bob Graham (D–FL), predicts an attack in the next 5 years if nothing changes. The commission expresses concerns about the spread of biotechnology abroad and the growing risks raised by the proliferation of biodefense labs in the United States. Terrorists don't possess the knowledge to launch an attack but could easily do so "by recruiting skilled scientists," the report says. Put another way:

In other words, given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.

Among other steps, the commission recommends a review of federal rules for controlling risky pathogens, tighter oversight of U.S. biodefense labs, and the promotion of a "culture of security awareness" among life scientists. Much of this has been discussed before, for example at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in October 2007. A bill introduced earlier this year would address some of the recommendations, and a federal biosafety task force will examine several next week, such as whether to mandate standard training. It may not be adding much new information, but the commission's report, aimed at Congress and the incoming Administration of President-elect Barack Obama, could give these leaders a nudge to follow through.