Interview with Matthew Meselson

Questions for Matthew Meselson, Thomas Dudley Cabot professor of the natural sciences at Harvard University, who has been outspoken on the topic of bioterrorism and traveled to Sverdlosk, in the former Soviet Union, to study an anthrax outbreak there in 1979. The Scientist: The Bush Administration's program calls for spending $1.75 billion annually over the next three years to fund bioterrorism research through the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) alone. That pa

Apr 7, 2003
John Dudley Miller

Questions for Matthew Meselson, Thomas Dudley Cabot professor of the natural sciences at Harvard University, who has been outspoken on the topic of bioterrorism and traveled to Sverdlosk, in the former Soviet Union, to study an anthrax outbreak there in 1979.

The Scientist: The Bush Administration's program calls for spending $1.75 billion annually over the next three years to fund bioterrorism research through the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) alone. That part of the plan directs the institute to discover and produce all necessary vaccines, medicines, and diagnostic tests to defeat bioterrorism, and NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has set a goal of 10 years to complete this work. What's your opinion of this strategy?

Matthew Meselson: There are something like 30 pathogens on the NATO threat list. Why don't we just cure the common cold? [That's similar] in its baldness.

There are some vaccines that we've tried to make for decades and decades, and we just don't know how…[Concerning Fauci's 10-year goal] I'm sure it's not possible for all of them…You will not get complete success…The last really great success with a vaccine was polio, a long time ago.

But to try is a different matter. Should [Fauci] try? Yes.

If you have vaccines against all these things, are you going to vaccinate all the Americans against all these things? Or are you going to find out what some terrorist or some nation is going to throw at you in advance? If you do find out in advance, when you start vaccinating millions of people, whoever was planning to use that thing, they now know that you've vaccinated millions of people. You can't keep it secret.

Antimicrobials are a completely different matter. To me that makes a lot more sense than vaccines for most agents. However, not for viruses. We don't have a cure for any virus disease that I know of.

So what you want to do is give attention to what I think is the key to everything, which is intent. If any group or any nation just really wants to, and they're willing to spend a few years getting there, they'll get there. So it's intent that's the key.

Our whole national approach to the problem in some ways seems to me to be very dangerous. You know, you heard nothing about this for 50 years, right? The technology was all known, and even published…certainly by 1952. So we first have to realize that if it hasn't happened in 50 years, there had to be reasons, if the technology was available. Why don't we study those reasons, and reinforce those reasons?

Our voice is completely off, I think. When President Nixon - so wisely - completely renounced offensive biowarfare and toxins, he didn't say, "These are weapons that bad people might use against good people," which is a stupid thing to say. Because bad people think of themselves, of course, as good people. And they think of us as bad people.

What President Nixon said was wise: "Mankind already holds in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction." In other words, he was saying it's bad for everybody. It's not us against them. It's bad for everybody.

Every technology that our species has ever developed, start with stoneworking, metallurgy, right on up to the most advanced technologies and computers, has been used not just for peaceful purposes, but very energetically for hostile ones. The reason we're so excited about this one is there's no way to quantify it. Suddenly, once it gets into your head, it's like a nettle. You don't know what to do about it.

I think we're completely off base in our worldwide efforts to prevent [bioterrorism]. I think we should not have abandoned the negotiation for a verification regime.

And then there have to be sanctions, real sanctions. In my opinion those sanctions have to be not against nations. I don't think those work-unless you go to war. But the embargoes don't work. I think they punish the wrong people.

What you've got to do is hold national leaders criminally responsible. In the courts. We should have a treaty to make the production and use of biological weapons a crime under international law. So anyone who does it…could be tried in any national court, not an international court, any national court, wherever he sets foot.

We've written such a treaty (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/hsp/IntroConvRev1.pdf), we meaning Harvard and the University of Sussex in England, and we just got word that the British government has said that it supports the idea.