The ‘made in a high school lab’ meme

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle at 3:40 pm by George Smith

Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer winner for news articles on an Ebola virus outbreak, did a question and answer with herself concerning the scientific publication (or censorship) of experimental genetic alteration to bird flu virus, on a a New York Times blog recently

It’s here.

It spawns a ridiculous quote, a cliched and shopworn idea that’s long been passed off as gospel by those pushing fear of imminent, or easily done, bioterrorism:

A biological weapon can be made in a high school biology lab …

It’s a brief trash emission by someone who established a reputation writing material that was distinctly not trash.

In 1995 I bought a copy of Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.

It’s a detailed scholarly book, fascinating to laymen and specialists alike.

However, a Pulitzer is a journalism prize. It is not at all the same thing as a Nobel. It is not an indication of excellence in lab research. And a Pulitzer is not a magic ticket that substitutes for getting the full union card in hard science.

Garrett’s Wiki bio reads, in part:

Garrett graduated with honors in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She attended graduate school in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at University of California, Berkeley and did research at Stanford University … During her PhD studies, Garrett started reporting on science news for radio station KPFA. The hobby soon became far more interesting than graduate school and she took a leave of absence to explore journalism. Garrett never completed her PhD.

Maybe Laurie Garrett knows first-hand about the ease, or lack of it, of working with human pathogens. And maybe not. I don’t know.

My perspective has always been very different. Microbial and biochemical preparations, which are what biological weapons are, never seemed high-school lab easy to me. (And if you have ever seen new students, in high school or college, struggle with introductory methods …)

Garrett works out of the Council on Foreign Relations, which like many high-button think tanks, isn’t nearly what it used to be, rep wise. The age of Internet and abuse of argument from authority have taken a toll on all such institutions.

And she recently joined the list of obscure and slightly-famous anthrax deniers, those publicly asserting they believe Bruce Ivins could not possibly have done the crime.

In December of 2001 Garrett wrote a long piece on bioterrorism, potential catastrophe and national unpreparedness for Vanity Fair.

At the time, no one knew the mailed anthrax had come out of Fort Detrick.

And no one knew that the only other case of war-on-terror era biological badness with select agents, the unrestricted sale of pure botulinum toxin to anyone who wanted it, would soon start up, sold out of private sector lab in the SF Bay area, one supplying reagents to those researching bioterrorism as a consequence of the anthrax mailings.

Neither of these places were high school labs. And since then there has been no bioterrorism generated by rogue science from such humble environs.

Interestingly, Garrett mentions another earlier example of bioterrorism research in which censorship came up during the war on terror.

She writes:

[In July 2005], The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper by Lawrence Wein, of Stanford, and Yifan Liu, of Harvard, that amounted to a recipe for concocting botulism-laced milk. Bruce Alberts, who was then the editor of the journal, resisted suggestions that he censor the paper, writing in an accompanying editorial that “protecting ourselves optimally against terrorist acts will require that both national and state governments, as well as the public, be cognizant of the real dangers.

At the time, the PNAS paper received a great deal of publicity. And it was spun off into a sensational guest editorial in the New York Times, one which was rebutted by Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland, and myself.

We argued that the claims made about botulinum toxin in the Proceedings paper, which was a statistical analysis and not based on any wet work anyway, were not a roadmap to terrorism. With respect to that, it didn’t matter if the paper was published.

However, often we’re seen to live in a fiendishly curious and complicated world.

The authors of the botox bioterror paper had cited the laboratory in the Bay Area that was selling the deadly poison to anyone who called for it. Those sales would eventually result in criminal prosecutions, convictions and people on slabs, kept alive by ventilators, after they were overdosed by botox produced in a US research lab.

However, the scientists publishing through Proceedings, it seemed, did not know this at the time. Instead, in the same paper, they suggested that one of the laboratory’s other research formulations could be useful in securing against the potential threat of large-scale botox poisoning.

The authors had further posited terrorists might buy a biological weapon from a “black market” lab or make it from some document downloaded from the Internet. In real life in 2005 there were no such black market labs and the document was not useful. However, there was a US free market-based fully licensed and very sophisticated biochemical fine products lab selling it to greedy people.

Again, to reiterate, the anthrax and botox did not come from high school biology labs.

1 Comment

  1. Chuck said,

    January 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    I think that it’s more likely we’ll end up with drug-resistant TB plague due to our lack of concern about diseases “over there”.