Tuesday, January 11, 2011

WikiLeaks on bio-terrorism : India is vulnerable to attacks by novel organisms

By Suman Sahai
THE media has been spilling the contents of the Radia tapes with salacious gossip about a minister running Air India into the ground to benefit private airlines, or the promiscuous ways of an industry tycoon. WikiLeaks is also getting space with stories of the less than reverential US attitude towards us despite all the soft-soaping going on in public about the power of rising India. What went unnoticed in this milieu of gossip and innuendos was a set of postings having unnerving contents. Dealing with bioterrorism, these minutes of the meetings of US diplomats with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reveal the US evaluation of India’s lack of preparedness to handle any kind of bioterrorism.

Indian officials have been aware of the threat of bioterrorism at the hands of jihadi elements for some time. Two years ago a terrorist apprehended in Kashmir was found to be carrying a sophisticated device looking like a fountain pen, which contained strange and toxic chemicals. According to a WikiLeaks document, MEA officials admit that Indian intelligence agencies have picked up the conversation of suspected terrorists discussing the use of bio-terrorism. According to this leaked report, jihadi groups have opened up channels to identify people with PhD degrees in biology and biotechnology to recruit those sympathetic to their cause. No guesses for figuring out what these PhDs should be doing for their jihadi masters.

Though old-style bio-terror agents like anthrax bacteria and cholera germs are still effective, antidotes are known for these and can be deployed fast if the state agencies are alert and can respond in real time. The real fear of bio-terrorism, however, now comes from the next generation of biological organisms that are being created in the lab using new tools like genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Advances in biotechnology have put in the hands of scientists and laboratory technicians several methods and techniques, all of them quite uncomplicated, that can be used to create new organisms with hitherto unknown traits.

Given that there are hundreds of labs engaged in the exercise of cutting and splicing genes from one organism to another and that all the equipment and chemicals needed to do this are easily available, the potential of creating God-knows-what in the lab is magnified several-fold. India’s rich biological diversity offers a range of bacteria and viruses and thousands of lethal toxins that can be obtained from sources like micro-organisms and plants. All these have the potential of being cut and spliced at will, creating dangerous new organisms that have no pedigree and for which no antidotes are known. These are the monsters on the horizon, waiting to be picked up by terrorists with mayhem and destruction on their agenda.

So far as bugs like anthrax are concerned, we know their structure and understand their way of functioning. We know how to control and destroy them. If there were to be an anthrax attack as it occurred in the US a few years ago, people would know how to contain the bacteria in a short time after the smallest number of casualties. In the case of new organisms created by genetic engineering or synthetic biology, nobody knows their structure or their properties. Since they are not natural, they are not related to other organisms, which could offer clues about their functioning. The spread of such new organisms in a population could cause devastation because we would have no way of containing them or knowing how to destroy them fast enough.

Since threats from such novel organisms are rated as serious, the technologies of genetic engineering and synthetic biology are highly regulated. In May 2010, when Craig Venter announced his breakthrough “artificial life” a newly constructed micro-organism made up of genes synthesised in the lab, one of his first actions was to notify the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues so that official circles were in the know about what he was developing and could keep track of it. Since then the Presidential Commission has issued a number of recommendations for the emerging field of synthetic biology, most notably for coordinated federal oversight of scientists working in both large and small institutions.

In India, it is a matter of concern that there is little such oversight. It is ridiculously easy to procure biological materials such as harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins from academic laboratories since the supervision in these institutions is notoriously lax. According to the WikiLeaks report, there is a real fear that getting into a supposedly high containment facility to obtain lethal bio-agents is not very difficult in India and that “India's notably weak public health and agricultural infrastructure coupled with high population density means that a deliberate release of a disease-causing agent could go undetected for quite a while before authorities become aware”.

Of a piece with all this is our shabby regulatory system for genetic engineering which is known to be full of holes. Premier academic institutions do not follow the rules and prescribed regulatory procedures. A few years ago the field trials of Bt brinjal being conducted in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi had to be burnt down because they were being done in violation of the process laid down for such trials. The Mahyco company has been conducting field trials of Bt rice in Jharkhand in flagrant violation of all prescribed norms. When evidence of their violations, which were contaminating the native rice, was pointed out to the regulators, they refused to take action against the company and began to harass Gene Campaign instead for bringing this to light. There are rumours of even worse. That regulation can be influenced and clearances obtained for a price.
In addition to leaky and compromised science and technology systems, India is particularly vulnerable to bioterrorism attacks because there is almost no coordination between the ministries and departments that would need to pull together in immediate response to such an eventuality. Turf guarding, lack of communication and the near-total absence of cooperation among key stakeholders from different departments is a glaring and dangerous impediment to the country’s capacity to respond to a bio-terrorist attack. For officials milling around inflated with self-importance, sober introspection about our terrifying vulnerability to modern bio-terrorism would appear to be an urgent requirement. It is high time this “emerging global power” got its house in order to protect the life of its citizens.
The writer, an expert in genetics, is the convener of Gene Campaign.
Source : http://www.tribuneindia.com/2011/20110111/edit.htm#4