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The futility of "pandemic preparedness"
The Future of War Part II
This is an unofficial continuation of the piece below, about the (true) Future of War.
Preparing for pandemics, despite technological advances, often seems like a futile endeavor, and it can be exploited as another way to secure funding for research – a practice known as "grant grabbing." A prime example of the limitations of this approach is DARPA itself, which claimed it could stop a real devastating, highly lethal, and rapidly spreading pandemic within two months back in 2017.
Now they want to leverage AI for the “prevention, treatment” and whatever other inane goal they have in mind. I am about to illustrate the futility of this endeavor and question how feasible it truly is, aside from potentially necessitating a global surveillance state that rivals the Chinese Communist Party system.
(I advise you to read the entire article below btw)
‘For me, the concern was just how easy it was to do’
It took less than six hours for drug-developing AI to invent 40,000 potentially lethal molecules. Researchers put AI normally used to search for helpful drugs into a kind of “bad actor” mode to show how easily it could be abused at a biological arms control conference.
All the researchers had to do was tweak their methodology to seek out, rather than weed out toxicity. The AI came up with tens of thousands of new substances, some of which are similar to VX, the most potent nerve agent ever developed. Shaken, they published their findings this month in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.
Second, we actually looked at a lot of the structures of these newly generated molecules. And a lot of them did look like VX and other warfare agents, and we even found some that were generated from the model that were actual chemical warfare agents. These were generated from the model having never seen these chemical warfare agents. So we knew we were sort of in the right space here and that it was generating molecules that made sense because some of them had already been made before.
For me, the concern was just how easy it was to do. A lot of the things we used are out there for free. You can go and download a toxicity dataset from anywhere. If you have somebody who knows how to code in Python and has some machine learning capabilities, then in probably a good weekend of work, they could build something like this generative model driven by toxic datasets. So that was the thing that got us really thinking about putting this paper out there; it was such a low barrier of entry for this type of misuse.
As I mentioned in my first post, designing novel toxins or amino acids/peptides that can harm the nervous system is not particularly difficult if one possesses the necessary know-how. And, as evidence, I had even jotted down such ideas in my leather notebook back in 2020. I came across an enlightening article on this subject, which I referenced in Future of War I.
The Body's Own Bioweapons
In the past, experts discounted the risk that peptide bioregulators might be “weaponized” because such compounds are non-volatile and degrade rapidly when dispersed in the atmosphere, making them poorly suited for dissemination over large areas. But recent advances in drug delivery technology have changed this assessment. In particular, the development of systems for the delivery of insulin (a hormone made up of 51 amino acid units) as an inhalable aerosol has made it feasible to disseminate peptide bioregulators in the same manner. To prevent the misuse of these natural body chemicals for hostile purposes, scientists and national security analysts must understand the nature of the threat and develop appropriate policy responses.
The process of using machine learning and public datasets to generate novel toxins might not be as challenging as one would expect, especially for individuals with imagination and curiosity in the field. So not that hard that I asked I friend who codes to write a little program for me, and gave him precise instructions and a couple of specific “math things” to add “it”.
The result was a specific peptide sequence (my main focus was always proteins and amino acids), that you can commercially order at any of the big custom peptides producing companies. Which I did, weeks ago, and no major red flags or anything else was raised, by the simple fact that the sequence doesn’t exist in any dataset or anywhere else.
To validate the significance and implications of the generated sequence, I consulted a close friend of mine, an amazingly gifted biochemist, thus ensuring the properties and potential effects of the sequence were assessed.
We destroyed the program, canceled the order, and I destroyed all the information.
The paper in question.
While there is a significant gap between applying machine learning and AI to generate a new toxin and actually creating one in the real world, that gap is indeed narrowing over time. Creating a new toxin involves several challenges, including synthesis and testing. However, as technology evolves and becomes more accessible, the barriers to entry for such endeavors are diminishing. What might have been considered extremely difficult and expensive in the past is becoming more attainable today.
An alarming example is the cost of creating smallpox in a small laboratory. Previously, this would have been an almost unimaginable feat, both technically and financially. However, the scenario you mentioned illustrates how, with just $100,000, it could now be hypothetically within reach for ill-intentioned individuals. Incidentally when I shared the following news article on Twitter, a random anonymous account asked me for my e-mail and sent me quite an extensive writing piece on how he cut the cost from 100.000 to 20.000.
I know what went to your head “Wait, WHAT ?”
In 2017, the virologist David Evans made headlines when he used synthetic biology to recreate the extinct horsepox virus, which is closely related to the virus that causes smallpox, a disease eradicated in 1980. Evans and his team, ordering the genetic material they needed through the mail, reportedly spent $100,000 on the research, an amount that seems small given the momentous implications of their work. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” German virologist Gerd Sutter told Science magazine in a press account of Evans’s work. A number of biosecurity experts and even The Washington Post editorial board joined him in voicing their concerns. Given the reaction Evans met, one might expect the news that yet another microbe related to the smallpox virus had been synthesized to set off similar alarm bells.
Yet when the American biotech company that funded Evans’s horsepox work, Tonix Pharmaceuticals, announced this January that it had successfully synthesized just such a microbe, vaccinia, no one seemed to take note.
Since the World Health Organization eradicated the smallpox-causing variola virus from nature, the only known samples of it have been held in two high-security facilities in the United States and Russia. But developments in synthetic biology, a field which includes the art and science of constructing viral genomes, have made it possible to create the smallpox virus in a lab. While there’s no evidence that anyone has done that yet, as Tonix’s work indicates, researchers are inching incredibly close to that line. Before it was eradicated, smallpox was responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century. The re-introduction of the disease—through negligence or malice—would be a global health disaster. As I wrote in International Security 10 years ago, global biosecurity can be endangered not just by biological warfare and bioterrorism, but also by laboratory accidents with dangerous pathogens.
Tonix announced the new synthetic vaccinia virus quietly, burying the news in a press release for a poster that the firm presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual biodefense science and policy conference. The poster focused on the progress the company was making in testing Evans’s synthetic horsepox virus for use as a vaccine against smallpox, which Tonix calls TNX-801. Current smallpox vaccines are based on live vaccinia virus that is grown using cell culture technology. Tonix’s poster also references another smallpox vaccine candidate the company is testing, one based on a synthetic version of the vaccinia virus that Tonix is calling TNX-1200. While the vaccinia and horsepox viruses are not themselves serious threats to human health, there are several reasons why this new development in synthetic biology is problematic.
Tonix has apparently ignored the concerns that many biosecurity experts, including myself, have raised. Given the close genetic similarity among orthopoxviruses like the horsepox, variola, and vaccinia viruses, the laboratory techniques that can be used to create one can also be used to produce others–most worryingly, the smallpox-causing variola virus. Indeed, Evans has said as much himself, once pointing out that his research “was a stark demonstration that this could also be done with variola virus.” Evans’s lab used the same technique to produce the synthetic vaccinia virus for Tonix as it did to synthesize the horsepox virus.
Unlike in other cases of controversial dual-use research, the risks posed by the synthesis of orthopoxviruses are not offset by any significant benefit
There are a few reasons why tabletop exercises focus so much on a small subset of weaponizable pathogens. One reason is the historical context, particularly the carelessness and the overwhelming workload faced by Soviet scientists who were also underpaid. Another concern is how relatively simple it could be for a malicious actor to carry out such an act with minimal investment and the involvement of only a small group of experts. An example of a highly dangerous pathogen in this context is Smallpox.
Now, I can imagine what's going through your head right now: "Wait, WHAT? It can't be that easy. Maybe Poxviruses are super-simple and easier to manipulate." However, it is essential for the reader to consider that SARS-CoV-2, is a highly complex pathogen. In fact, one could write numerous theses exploring its intricacies, making it one of the most complex viruses known to date.
The first case of coronavirus in Switzerland was detected a week ago but the virus was in the country much before that, as a laboratory sample.
This content was published on March 3, 2020 - 15:00March 3, 2020 - 15:00
Three weeks before the first case was identified on Swiss soil scientists at a high security lab managed to make a synthetic clone of the coronavirus. The researchers are now trying to determine the importance of its individual genes. Their accomplishment is getting worldwide attention: labs and companies are requesting the clone to work on.
I have expressed in several tweets that there are speculations surrounding the origins of Omicron, suggesting it may have been engineered using AI, mathematical models, and a daring proposition from an interdisciplinary research team aiming to 'end' the pandemic. This variant supposedly triggers an immune response opposite to what we observe in other strains, providing broader immunity specifically targeting the organs most affected by SARS-CoV-2 (such as the lower respiratory tract deep within the lungs). Additionally, it appears that all the most inflammatory sequences have been attenuated, with the notable SEB sequence even evident to non-experts.
The significant differences in Omicron raise concerns about the feasibility of developing a vaccine (as previously discussed). This indicates that dual-use technology may be advancing faster than we had anticipated, and contemplating how to prevent 'synthetic pandemics' might be as challenging as trying to employ mRNA technology for long-term immunity against a highly transmissible respiratory virus.
It's crucial to acknowledge that the entirety of these discussions aligns with current biology and chemistry orthodoxy. Every aspect here has been approached in line with the latest cutting-edge practices in molecular manipulation and gene editing. However, it does prompt us to consider the potential scenario of an interdisciplinary team with mercenary motives, pushing the boundaries far beyond established scientific orthodoxy. The ramifications of such a situation warrant serious examination.
New technology could lead to development of novel “xenoprotein” drugs against infectious diseases.
MIT chemists have devised a way to rapidly synthesize and screen millions of novel proteins that could be used as drugs against Ebola and other viruses.
All proteins produced by living cells are made from the 20 amino acids that are programmed by the genetic code. The MIT team came up with a way to assemble proteins from amino acids not used in nature, including many that are mirror images of natural amino acids.
These proteins, which the researchers call “xenoproteins,” offer many advantages over naturally occurring proteins. They are more stable, meaning that unlike most protein drugs, they don’t require refrigeration, and may not provoke an immune response.
“There is no other technological platform that can be used to create these xenoproteins because people haven’t worked through the ability to use completely nonnatural sets of amino acids throughout the entire shape of the molecule,” says Brad Pentelute, an MIT associate professor of chemistry and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 21.
I want the reader to watch the video by Dr. James Giordano at the very least, read that piece and this one, and answer me.
If you attend university, you get even more access to a myriad of other tools, completely at your disposal and nobody is the wiser about whatever you are doing it. Building a lab is not that expensive, you can order everything online, on a stretch, and with good deals, you can build a lab for 50.000 dollars.
How can you prepare for something you a young adult with a CRISPR kit, an internet connection and curiosity can create ?
For the more anxious among my readers, this isn’t that easy to do, this won’t happen overnight, and 99% of the time it is easy to track whenever someone “cooked up” something, but not that easy to track where/when it was released. This post is more about awareness than fear, or doom and gloom.
The population should be aware of how easy it is to do things that can vastly change the fate of nations, sometimes the world. There should be legislation written about this right now, and not about climate change, among other more harsh opinions from me, that I won’t bore the reader with.
(If you ever asked yourself why I left my former job, that made life much easier, reading both Future of War and the first Beyond Mathematical Odds will give you the answer).
I hope you all have a nice Sunday ! Perhaps a small post about Omicron variants and immunity (basically you need to get reinfected with the new ones to be protected against the coming ones).
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