Biological warfare
Building biological weapons could be done easily by downloading instructions in the form of research off the internetUsaf/Getty Images

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has said that biological research of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens can be easily accessed by people or states that might want to build weapons out of them.

A report by the National Academy pointed out that such publications could actually contain information on how to weaponize pathogens.

According to the National Academy, a majority of scientists and researchers in this field have limited awareness when it comes to biosecurity issues. New Scientist pointed out the incident where 22 people were infected and five were killed after a government scientist send Anthrax spores via mail in 2001.

The academy also said that there were "multiple shortcomings" in the systems designed to stop potentially risky research from being published.

In the US, there is a restriction in place on research concerning 15 different pathogens and toxins called the "dual-use research of concern". These are materials that have the dual use of medical research as well as be fashioned to kill.

However, the report warns that the list of 15 is no longer exhaustive as technologies like CRISPR –a gene editing method– have made it a lot easier to create life forms from scratch as well as modify existing microbes in any way required.

"The driving vision of synthetic biologists is that genes can be put together like Lego bricks," says Dr Filippa Lentzos of King's College London who deals with security aspects of life sciences. "We have focused on locking up dangerous pathogens so people don't have access to them. But today you can just build them in the lab," she added.

Researchers from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada demonstrated how they had synthesised a virus they called "Horsepox" –a deadly type of smallpox– from sequences that they purchased over mail. The NS report pointed out that vaccination for smallpox was stopped in the 1970s and as a result, people under 40 would not have any immunity to it if it gets out.

While the Horsepox research has not been published yet, the report says that there are ways for people to still put their work out there if not through formal publications called pre-print sites. The report explained that restrictions placed on risky research from going out are also only applicable to federally funded institutions, not private companies and independent researchers.

Restrictions on research and publication of potentially dangerous substances might also have a detrimental effect on the research community, says Gigi Gronvall of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland. "You don't want to curtail research being done for beneficial reasons unnecessarily," she says, while adding, "There's a plethora of things that could be misused. Nature has a lot of ways to kill people."

The academy's publication is reported to make a mention of the fact that even after decades of effort put into this issue, there is little in the international forum by way of policy and consensus to address it.