Biotechnology experts discuss terrorism at panel

Anthrax attacks have made headlines across America in the past weeks, but bioterrorism experts at a Tuesday panel said that it is more dangerous to cross the street than to open mail.

In front of about 100 people, the speakers at the “Averting Hostile Exploitation of Biotechnology” symposium at 55 Whitney Ave. discussed the future of bioterrorism, including possible legal and political ways to stop attacks, even as they downplayed the immediate risk for most Americans.

The special meeting, sponsored by Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, was one of many talks arranged for the Yale Bioethics Project. The lecture featured Harvard science professor Matthew Meselson, Yale political science professor Paul Bracken and Yale molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor William Summers.

Meselson said scientific researchers will not withhold information about biological discoveries in the fear that terrorists might use the information for harm.

“Any technology every created has at one point been used for hostile purposes, from metallurgy to the wheel to computers,” said Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, as he discussed Meselson’s speech. “Biological agents are no different.”

But Summers alluded to the possibility of stricter regulations for infectious disease samples in the future, likening the process to the long bureaucratic process U.S. labs go through to secure radioactive material.

Bracken said the bioterrorism of this century is a new and different threat.

“We are no longer in an age of the Cold War where there was fear of an accidental triggering of war,” Bracken said. “This is now all premeditated.”

Green said he was glad to see professors from disparate academic disciplines coming together to talk about a topic that relates to the work of all of them.

“The idea is to take applied researchers and people who think about day to day problems in science and foster a conversation between them and others interested in the politics of these issues,” Green said. “This is a perfect example of how different disciplines can find a point of convergence.”

Valerie Karplus ’02, one of few undergraduates at the event, said she now feels able to see the broader issues of bioterrorism.

“I appreciated the perspective that the speakers provided and how we are moving beyond short-term perspectives to seek long-term solutions,” Karplus said.

Meselson said there is a need for a global arms treaty, and his talk focused on a way to draft and implement a “convention to prohibit biological and chemical weapons under international criminal law.”

Green said he was happy to see the professors touching on disciplines other than their own.

“One nice thing is to see one of the most eminent professors in molecular biology [Meselson] speaking about extending an institution of law,” Green said.

For now, the speakers said bioterrorism likely will not affect many American.

Summers said more than 3,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in the same time that three people died from anthrax, but the nation is captivated by the biological attacks.

“Here we’re dealing with the biology of aggression and fear,” Summers said. “[W]e don’t have Wolf Blitzer talking about [other diseases] every 10 minutes.”

Summers and other panelists emphasized the importance of keeping bioterrorism in perspective, especially considering the limited amount of information that surrounds the anthrax attacks.

“If talking about deaths, giving cigarettes to children in grade school would be a far worse terrorist attack,” Summers said. “It’s all relative.”

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