Prominent microbiologist gives Sigma Xi lecture on bioterrorism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last night, Dr. Ronald M. Atlas, a nationally recognized expert on bioterrorism, delivered this semester’s Sigma Xi lecture in Science Center 101. The lecture, titled “Bioterrorism: The Threat and Biodefense Challenges,” covered the United States’ response to the threat of bioterror over the past four years, including a detailed description of the various defense approaches implemented by the government in response to the 9/11 attacks.

In addition to his credentials as a microbiologist, Atlas has written over 20 books and published numerous articles over the course of his career. He has also served on a number of national committees and acts as a major consultant for the federal government on bioterrorism matters.

Atlas opened his lecture by briefly summarizing the history of the bioweapons program in Iraq, noting that such a program, including legally acquired anthrax samples, undoubtedly existed prior to the first Gulf War (as confirmed by UNSCOM inspectors at the time). However, by the time the current American invasion began, Iraq had discarded its anthrax stockpiles.

The potentials of bioweapons as weapons of mass destruction, and as tools for bioterrorism and biocrimes (such as assassinations) are severe. Atlas described them as “a poor man’s nuclear bomb” due to their relatively low cost, and detailed the federal government’s massive escalation of biodefense efforts since the 9/11 attacks, which have collectively resulted in an increase in funding from a meager $25 million per year to over $1.7 billion per year today.

Atlas also spoke at length about the ethical controversies that have arisen due to the Bush Administration’s current emphasis on biodefense. He argued that, although flawed in its treatment of individual rights, the USA Patriot Act’s restrictions on the possession of select biological agents are necessary, saying that “if you can’t buy a handgun, you shouldn’t have anthrax.”

Atlas noted that whereas nuclear physics research is routinely classified, biology is considered an open field based on international cooperation. While the potential misuse of biotechnology must always be taken into consideration, he argued, it would be far more troubling if scientists were forced to censor their experimental methods. This would prevent repeatability, a cornerstone of the scientific method.

Atlas instead favors self-governance by the scientific community, with the responsibility for avoidance of bioweapons research placed upon journal editors. He also called for the adoption of a universal Code of Ethics for the Life Sciences, saying that this should “prevent the life sciences from becoming the death sciences.”

The lecture was met with enthusiasm by the mixed crowd of students, professors, and Swarthmore residents. Meagan Bolles ’06 noted, “It’s a lot of relevant stuff that you don’t hear about when you’re just looking into a Ph.D. program.” Vicky Woo ’06 was struck by the recent increases in biodefense spending: “What shocked me was how much money they are spending on things like a center for acting out diseases [used to train physicians in diagnosis].”

Professor Amy Vollmer, who organized the lecture, remarked that Atlas was struck by the “spirit of inquiry” he perceived during a tour of the campus. She quoted him as saying, in response to the posters hung up throughout the Science Center, that “Swarthmore students don’t just do research because it looks good on their resumes.” Vollmer added, “The way he [Atlas] conducts himself professionally really resonates with Swarthmore… It is not enough to have mastery, but in the Quaker tradition, there is the responsibility to do good.”

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