Experts Press for New Forensic Methods to Spot Bioweapon Attacks

A laboratory at the Beijing Center of Disease Control, seen last year. A new National Research Council report calls for the development of new, "high-confidence" techniques for distinguishing potential biological strikes from other disease threats.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
June 10, 2014, 8:54 a.m.

A Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil ex­pert pan­el is ur­ging sci­ent­ists to pur­sue new, re­li­able meth­ods for dis­tin­guish­ing bio­lo­gic­al at­tacks from oth­er out­breaks.

“In the event of a sus­pec­ted bio­lo­gic­al at­tack, lead­ers would have ques­tions about the iden­tity and source of the bio­lo­gic­al threat,” says a re­port re­leased on Fri­day by the in­flu­en­tial fed­er­al ad­vis­ory body. “Forensic sci­ence can help an­swer these ques­tions, and it is es­sen­tial that the an­swers be re­li­able.”

Mi­cro­bi­al forensics” is still a young field, though, and any ef­fort to de­vel­op re­li­able ana­lyt­ic­al tech­niques may de­pend on new gene-se­quen­cing tech­no­lo­gies to as­sess vast num­bers of mi­croor­gan­isms in ad­vance, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors.

“Un­til re­cently there have been few sys­tem­at­ic ef­forts to col­lect and de­scribe the mi­crobes liv­ing in soil, sea­wa­ter, fresh­wa­ter lakes and streams, on plants, and even com­mens­ally in the guts or oth­er sur­faces of hu­mans and oth­er an­im­als,” they wrote in the re­port.

The pan­el said that such “baseline” know­ledge may prove cru­cial to de­term­in­ing wheth­er vir­uses or bac­teria in a dis­ease out­break are sig­ni­fic­antly dif­fer­ent from what is nor­mal for their en­vir­on­ment. That in­form­a­tion, in turn, could aid in as­sess­ing “wheth­er the pres­ence of that patho­gen is nat­ur­al or the res­ult of a de­lib­er­ate or in­ad­vert­ent re­lease,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The au­thors warned, though, that col­lect­ing such “meta­ge­n­om­ic” data would re­quire a ma­jor glob­al ef­fort.

“Form­al in­ter­na­tion­al sci­entif­ic col­lab­or­a­tions will need to be cre­ated to en­sure that tech­no­lo­gic­al re­sources are ac­cess­ible to all na­tions, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­ing coun­tries that cur­rently lack such re­sources, and that fund­ing can be lever­aged bet­ter,” the find­ings state. “This is a high-pri­or­ity need for the re­search and fund­ing agen­das both in­side and out­side the United States that re­quires a co­ordin­ated ef­fort on an in­ter­na­tion­al scale.”

The Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil ex­pert pan­el pre­pared its find­ings in con­sulta­tion with the Brit­ish Roy­al So­ci­ety, the Croa­tian Academy of Sci­ence and Arts and the In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on of Mi­cro­bi­o­lo­gic­al So­ci­et­ies.

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