The next global pandemic may be caused by a bioterrorist attack, says Harvard tech expert

Factory worker with dangerous materials
The next global pandemic could be the result of a bioterrorist attack.

  • The next global pandemic could be caused by a bioterrorist attack, warned tech expert Vivek Wadhwa.
  • He’s worried about the accessibility of CRISPR gene editing, which allows genes to be cut and paste.
  • Although “the genie is out of the bottle,” an effective counter-response could prevent an attack.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The next global pandemic could be the result of a bioterrorist attack, a tech expert has warned.

Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering, said in an essay for Foreign Policy that this was largely due to advances in cheap and easily accessible methods of genetic engineering.

Conspiracy theories have often suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “bioweapon” manufactured in a Chinese lab.

However, Wadhwa, who is also a distinguished fellow of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, insisted that the pandemic was not created in a lab, citing a report by Nature Medicine.

“But if genetic engineering wasn’t behind this pandemic, it could very well unleash the next one,” Wadhwa said.

He believes the current pandemic should be treated as a “dress rehearsal of what is to come, including viruses deliberately engineered by humans.”

Advances in genetic engineering are a double-edged sword

The concerns of those in science and tech have slowly been becoming a reality, with Wadhwa pointing to the ease of access to gene editing kits in the US.

Mail-order do-it-yourself kits can be ordered by anyone, with a bacterial engineering kit costing as little as $169. Meanwhile, a human engineering kit comes in at $349.

One reviewer said they were a high-school student while another said they “didn’t know it could be this easy.”

This ease of accessibility is largely due to the advances of CRISPR gene editing, which enables scientists to cut and paste genes, with the possibility of curing or eradicating malaria or Huntingdon’s disease, but also of damaging species and ecosystems.

Wadhwa said CRISPR makes it “almost as easy to engineer life forms as it is to edit Microsoft Word documents.”

“There should have been international treaties to prevent the use of CRISPR for gene editing on humans or animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should have kept companies from selling DIY gene-editing kits,” Wadhwa added.

In April 2015, Chinese researchers genetically engineered human embryos, and this was followed by a failed attempt to genetically modify two babies to be HIV-resistant in 2018.

The scientist involved in the latter experiment, He Jiankui, was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

There is still much research to be done on CRISPR, which has not yet been declared safe for use and has previously caused concern due to potential links with cancer.

Although this was largely dismissed as an “overreaction”, there is no clear consensus among scientists, with geneticist Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Center saying the effects of CRISPR had been “seriously underestimated.”

Gene editing DNA
CRISPR gene editing enables scientists to ‘cut and paste’ genetic information.

Could this lead to a pandemic created by bioterrorists?

From board games simulating a bioterrorist attack to a bipartisan report declaring the US to be “significantly underprepared” for bioterrorism, it seems a bioterrorism pandemic could well be in our future.

“The bad is just too terrible to think about,” said Wadha, who maintained “the only solution is to accelerate the good side of these technologies while building our defenses.”

Piers Millett, of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, is more optimistic than Wadhwa.

Speaking to Future of Life, he said gene editing was not a significant step forward for biowarfare, and pinned the possibilities of bioterrorist attacks on “states” rather than lone actors.

He did, however, concede that the intentional creation of a harmful pathogen would be “amongst the most dangerous things on the planet.”

In 2018 the John Hopkins Center for Health Security ran a simulation exercise with US policymakers, testing their reactions and decisions in the face of a bioterrorist attack involving a highly contagious disease, according to Vox.

Vox reported that the results showed worldwide deaths in excess of 150 million and a 90% tumble for the Dow Jones.

“It is now too late to stop the global spread of these technologies – the genie is out of the bottle,” Wadhwa said.

Their potential harmful impact will depend on how quickly a counter-response can be formed. If used for good, however, these technologies could be the answer to curing “all disease.”

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