Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Black Swan Events: Bioterrorism

The Genomic Revolution is a double-edged sword. As I mentioned previously, the benefits will be enormous. Genomics will allow us to have personalized, preventative health care, instead of mass-market sick care. However, there is also a ghastly dark side to the Genomic Revolution. We will soon face the truly horrifying prospect of bioterror (or bioerror.) When any college student has access to pathogens and the capability to modify them to make them even more virulent or transmissible, someone almost certainly will.

Within a few years, the genomes of nearly all human pathogens will be publicly available. This will be necessary in order to better understand these diseases and develop cures. However, those who wish to use this information to commit acts of mass murder will have access to it as well. Some diseases may not require very much modification to become even more deadly. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed more people than World War I, is very genetically similar to many of the strains of flu that are still circulating to this day. Soon it will be possible for an individual to create a virulent flu strain like the Spanish flu by genetically modifying other strains.

Since genomics is essentially an information technology, it is possible to swap genes from one species into another. This is what allows agronomists to copy the cold-resistant genes of Arctic fish and paste them into tomatoes (in theory.) However, the same principle could be used by bioterrorists to create a Frankenstein’s monster, combining the worst traits of many diseases. Imagine an illness with the virulence of ebola, the transmissibility of the common cold, and the evolutionary adaptability of HIV. Such a disease is the stuff that nightmares (or B-movies) are made of. Yet it will eventually be possible for malevolent individuals or groups to create them.

If a manmade disease was sufficiently different from anything found in nature, it could prove devastating. We humans have had a chance to evolve alongside influenza, the plague, malaria, and other naturally-occurring afflictions. People alive today are mostly descended from the hearty individuals who survived earlier strains of these diseases. But we would not have evolved such immunities to manmade diseases. Just as the vast majority of Native Americans were decimated by European diseases to which they had no immunity in the 16th century, we could face the same prospect with manmade superplagues.

Fortunately, we have a defensive weapon in our arsenal that the 16th century Native Americans did not have. Just as genomics can create such frightening diseases, it holds the potential to cure them. Within a few years, it will be possible to sequence a genome in a couple hours. As our understanding of how genes work continues to grow, it will take less and less time to understand the genomes we sequence. Assuming that bureaucratic procedures were waived to combat a public health emergency, a cure for a manmade disease could be on the market almost as quickly as software antivirus programs are patched when new threats are discovered. Soon, naturally-occurring diseases could be a mere minor annoyance. The real public health danger could shift to the arms race between bioterrorists and scientists racing to cure their latest concoctions.


By 2040 – A disease created or modified by humans has been released into the public. Probability: 90%

By 2040 – A disease created or modified by humans has killed at least 100,000 people. Probability: 75%

(I hesitated to even call bioterrorism a “Black Swan,” since that implies that the event is at least somewhat unlikely to occur. In my opinion, the danger of manmade diseases being released onto the public is not a question of if, but when and where. Since we cannot forecast this, it is unpredictable enough to be considered a Black Swan Event in my opinion.)

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