Fears that rogue scientists could engineer a new virus as devastating as Covid

Biosecurity experts say terrorists inspired by pandemic could create chaos

14 November 2020, Saxony, Leipzig: A model of a coronavirus is held by a person wearing complete infection protection clothing. Photo: Peter Endig/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB (Photo by Peter Endig/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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The Covid-19 pandemic raised new fears for counter-terrorism experts: a virus just as devastating could be deliberately unleashed on the world.

There is a scenario in which they use a war-game drill as a basis for emergency planning.

In the exercise, money is paid to rogue scientists to use a level three biosecurity laboratory to develop a synthetically manipulated pathogen that is highly contaminating but low in toxicity, similar to Covid-19.

Using the equivalent of a suicide bomber, the terrorists inject the pathogen into three victims around the Easter holidays. One goes to a refugee camp where it is passed on to aid workers who later fly to their various home countries.

Another heads for a shopping centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, mingling with crowds, touching goods and doors. The third has an EU passport and travels to a busy Alpine ski resort. With no early warning system in place to detect biological attacks, it could be days or weeks before the virus is traced. The world is once again brought to its knees by a pandemic.

PORTON DOWN, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: A general view of Porton Down where the nerve agent used on Sergei Skripal, 66 and his daughter Yulia was identified on March 15, 2018 in Porton Down, England. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced £48M investment in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down following the nerve agent attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

It is this type of situation that institutions such as the US Combating Terrorism Centre and other international government agencies have to consider as they evolve a new biosecurity strategy for the post-Covid world.

“Suddenly biology and biosecurity isn’t the fringe thing that we have to worry about every now and then,” said Dr Drew Endy of Stanford University. “The threat landscape inclusive of bioterror is increasingly dynamic.”

His views are echoed by Lt Michael Nagata, former head of US Special Operations Command, who believes that “the likelihood of a future terrorist using a highly potent, clandestinely produced, difficult to detect, easily transportable and dispersible, and quite lethal biological weapon is rising significantly”.

Analysts at the Combating Terrorism Centre believe rogue states and terrorists observed with interest how a highly transmissible but not especially virulent pathogen has had a devastating global effect.

As a result, there is growing concern that rogue scientists could potentially engineer viruses by using new methods in synthetic biology. The advances in synbio mean that a highly dangerous virus can now be manipulated relatively simply.

“You don't need to be a Cambridge PhD, or have a laboratory like Porton Down to do this today,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of Britain’s chemical and biological weapons regiment.

While the mutated British Covid strain is almost certainly the virus naturally evolving, there is a concern that rogue scientists could specifically target Covid-19 by manipulating its DNA.

“With synthetic biology it’s much easier to manipulate a virus and its pathogens. It is not beyond the realms of possibility and it has to be taken seriously in terms of biosecurity,” he said.

There are an estimated one million scientists worldwide who are capable of manipulating pathogens and it would require only a fraction to turn rogue to develop a biological weapon.

"The risk of a future destructive biological attack or another devastating global pandemic should no longer be seen as low. There should no higher priority for the international community than biosecurity,'' Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

Dr Endy, a specialist in bioengineering, said that countries that aspire to become nuclear powers, such as Iran, might instead turn to bioweapons as a form of leverage.

“Suddenly, you don’t need the isotope centrifuges. Becoming a biopower is relatively affordable as a state-level programme and it’s hard to detect or thwart,” he told the CTC. “We may be stumbling into a near future where suddenly geopolitics plays out in new ways and the nuclear powers, which have entrenched themselves in a geopolitical position of privilege, find themselves being outmanoeuvred by biopowers. It’s absolutely horrifying.”

Another concern is the huge reduction in the cost of printing DNA that allow a virus genome to be made today for just $300 whereas 15 years ago it would have cost $120,000.

Scientists in Switzerland have recreated the Spanish flu vaccine and in 2016 three scientists in Canada built the horse pox virus genome.

There were some disparaging responses in 2017 when Bill Gates said that within a decade the world would probably experience a bio-terrorism attack killing more than 30 million people with a fast-moving airborne pathogen. While Covid-19 is not a terrorist attack it has already taken almost two million lives and infected more than 75 million.

Experts now believe that with less than $10,000 and a couple of rogue scientists creating their own pathogenic agents, Mr Gates’ prediction could become a reality.

There are also concerns that criminals might attempt to target the millions of vaccines now being manufactured by major drugs companies. In Britain, there is a suggestion that the army might be used to distribute and protect the AstraZeneca vaccine after it is approved by regulators.

With the Pfizer drug poised for approval by EU regulators, Interpol chiefs are predicting a "dramatic" rise in crime around the vaccines. "This is something people desperately want so there is a value to it," r de Bretton-Gordon said.

“The security of it is key, so it goes to the right people, to ensure that the wrong people don’t get hold of it and manipulate the vaccine.”

The biosecurity expert is also calling on governments to come together to develop more robust medical countermeasures. “A much greater degree of domestic manufacturing and supply of [countermeasures], including personal protective equipment and medical equipment such as ventilators, is essential,” he said.

An early warning system is vital to prevent a pandemic and the US Department of State is in discussions to develop one that would trigger lockdowns to contain outbreaks. The system would monitor level three and four biolabs, highlighting leaks, thefts and accidents, and would also track social media to pick up signals such as 20 people being admitted to hospital with the same infection.

Stronger oversight and surveillance is also required of the estimated 3,000 level three biolabs around the world – some in rogue or failing states – all of which are capable of making pathogens.

“Advances in synthetic biology are transforming the potential threat posed by engineered pathogens, creating growing concern over biological attacks and bio terror,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

It has been reported that ISIS tried its hand at creating a bioweapon with the plague virus and plant it into a refugee camp. It is also understood that the terrorists previously recruited a North African biochemist to work for them on biological weapons.

In security networks, there is a suggestion that a bio attack is ISIS’s intent.

“There are rumours that they are seeing what they can do in light of how Covid has brought the world to its knees,” said a western security source. “If you want to create ultimate terror then you know this is now the ultimate terror piece.”