So far, the rules -- weak and inconsistent as they may be -- have never been broken. Neither the Dutch virologist who created the roughly 90 percent mammalian transmissible form of superkiller H5N1 bird flu, nor the researchers who published a botulism cookbook -- and not even the scientists who re-created the horrible 1918 flu virus or the fellows who constructed a polio virus from scratch -- broke any existing rules. In every case, the researchers consulted with approval committees, sent their papers off when asked for review to various government committees, and then published their work openly in major scientific journals.
The problem is that there are no consistent, internationally agreed-upon regulations governing synthetic biology, the extraordinarily popular and fruitful 21st-century field of genetic manipulation of microorganisms. The chief agreement governing bioweapons work is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which was created in the early 1970s as a bilateral accord between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Entered into force in 1975, the BWC now has 165 states that are party to it. Clinton's now-infamous Dec. 7 speech in Switzerland was to a BWC gathering. The institution's current president is Paul van den Ijssel of the Netherlands, Fouchier's home country. Van den Ijssel advocates "ambitious realism" in pursuit of policies that can make the BWC an effective instrument for control of dangerous science, terrorism, and biological weapons. His ambition is to modernize the BWC, giving it long-sought teeth for verifying weapons violations and monitoring compliance. Currently the BWC is toothless.
At the BWC's creation in 1975, biologists were just beginning to figure out so-called genetic engineering, moving genes from one bacterial species to another, typically using viruses as the vehicles on which the targeted gene hitchhiked from cell to cell. It was tedious work that was prone to contamination, and few political leaders had even a vague comprehension of what the scientists were up to. As a result, in its conception the BWC framed the bioweapons question in classic nation-state conflict terms. In many ways the original BWC bore more resemblance to nuclear weapons treaties than anything else, imagining stockpiles of vats full of dangerous microbes under the possession of national armies and "weaponized" to be hurled at enemy territories in some vague concept of biological warfare. The conceit was so crude and nightmarish that most political leaders and their intelligence advisors for decades dismissed the entire biowarfare notion as a ridiculous fantasy. The most common cry from skeptics was that no country would use biological weapons because they might kill more of their own people than the toll the microbes would take among the enemy. The microbes, it was thought, were uncontrollable and therefore unusable.
As I describe in detail in my new book, I Heard the Sirens Scream, the 9/11 attacks and 2001 anthrax mailings shook political establishments worldwide out of their complacencies. The United States, in particular, has spent trillions of dollars over the last decade in anticipation of bioterrorism, buying vaccines, treatments, alleged detection devices, and protective gear for civilian and military first-responders; staging drills and war-games scenarios; and practicing mass-casualty care in hospitals all over the country. On the civilian side alone, 2010 spending topped $5 billion, most directed to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for research on specific microbes.
At the behest of President George W. Bush's administration, the CDC created a list of organisms and biotoxins considered possible weapons and encouraged a vast research-and-development effort. The numbers of biodefense centers, featuring high-security laboratories and stockpiles of the world's deadliest microbes, mushroomed over the last decade from an easily named handful to hundreds around the world, far too many meeting Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 or 4 standards. (Most biology research is conducted in lower-security facilities, but many universities and governments now have BSL-3 setups.) The flu experiments at Erasmus and the University of Wisconsin were executed in such settings. Researchers wear basic protective gear, and the actual microbes are held behind a glass barrier in a specially vented negative pressure space that sucks up all errant germs into a filter system. As added protection, the researchers breathe air that is pumped into their masks from a separate, safe source.
BSL-4 facilities are far more difficult to work in, more costly, and theoretically more secure. The scientists wear spacesuits and toil inside a facility that is itself nested inside at least one other secure layer. All air, food, water, and products are hygienically processed going into the lab and cleaned or destroyed rather than exiting the facility. Only the humans may freely leave the laboratory's confines. Yet despite all the security and protections provided by BSL-3 and -4 facilities, leaks and accidents have happened.
Remarkably, influenza research of all kinds -- including creation of superbugs -- is classified as BSL-3, and the Erasmus and Wisconsin facilities did their work in basic vented labs located on campuses. Fouchier did not blithely wade into his flu experiments, as some news reports have claimed, but followed all rules governing biosecurity in the Netherlands. In 2008, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences released its Code of Conduct for Biosecurity, stipulating what types of science, under what conditions, can be executed and published by Dutch researchers. Fouchier very strictly adhered to the Dutch code.