First published on on April 28, 2015

Think of all the trouble that computer hackers cause. Now imagine what DNA hackers could do.

In the future, DNA hackers won’t sneak viruses into your laptop and crash websites. Instead, they’ll sneak viruses into your body and crash you, and maybe billions of other people, too. They’ll do this by designing DNA sequences that code for new, never-before-seen, living viruses that spread from person to person as easily as measles, and that kill (or sicken) as inevitability as rabies.

Truly monstrous hackers will ensure your doctor cannot help you fight the virus, by engineering it so that off-the-self medicines and vaccines are ineffective. Medical science, caught flat-footed, will have only weeks to develop, test, produce, and distribute new vaccines and medicines before the exponential spread of the virus collapses social order world-wide. (Witness last year’s penetrating anxieties when just two people caught Ebola inside the U.S.)

With today’s science, engineering an Armageddon virus may still be impossible. But the progress of DNA technology in the 40 years since its invention has been spectacular and is accelerating. Remember the national-scale effort needed to sequence one human genome 15 years ago? Within a year it will cost you $500. By mail order. So, certainly, 40 years in the future, things that are now very hard or impossible will be easy.

And hackers are going to love DNA. Fundamentally, DNA is just a programming language for living tissues. DNA hackers will write programs for living cells to run, just like computer hackers write programs for computers to run. Today’s most leading-edge scientists have only started doing this, and there is no telling where it will go.

But when such techniques mature, zealots —– or brilliant but disturbed high-school students – will realize they can make self-propagating bioweapons targeting only redheads. Or blood members of the British Royal family. Or Basques. … Or dark-skinned people. Many testified that the apartheid South African government sought precisely such weapons in the 1980s, but that era’s rudimentary biotechnology stymied it. Not for much longer.

What to do? Scientists today are debating whether experiments on this path should be performed, but this responsible approach will not stop malevolent forces unconcerned with law or morals. Containing the technology will be impossible: unlike atomic weapons, our bodies contain all the elements needed to manufacture viruses.

There is only one solution: build a defense better than the offense – a defense that can detect, characterize and counter, on a national scale, any new viral or bacterial threat within 30 days of its appearance. Make it so hard to beat our defense that assembling the capital and talent needed to do so cannot occur surreptitiously.

This will be hard. Unbelievably hard. The aim is nothing less than the neutralization of every infectious disease, known and unknown. But it is an ambition matched by need, and it is science, not hubris.

Fortunately, cost is not a showstopper. Even if only partially successful, such a program – let us call it the New Apollo program, because Apollo was also the god of plagues – would generate so many wealth-producing discoveries in all branches of medicine that the overall cost of the program would be largely offset, not to mention the lives it would save directly.

Finally, consider the alternative, in which the continued existence of our planetary civilization depends on the sound judgment of teenagers. To avoid certain doom, the defense must get ahead and stay ahead, and we must start now.

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