American Chemical Society AMA: Hi Reddit! My name is Randall Murch, a professor in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Previously I worked in the FBI forensics Laboratory. Ask me anything about applying forensic science to investigations of bioweapons and other WMD acts of terrorism.

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Have you ever come across any modern day cases of malevolent groups or individuals attempting to use biological weapons? Should I be reasonably concerned about a mad scientist cooking up a superbug in a garage? If so, how could police or intelligence agencies prevent such an event?

MJY13

Modern day cases don't just entail malevolent groups or individuals "cooking up a superbug", though this is of concern with more sophisticated and better resourced adversaries. Nature and available open source knowledge provides those interested in developing and using bioweapons plenty of straightforward opportunities, even through isolating common or endemic pathogens or via biotoxins. Over the past 20 years, there have been many known situations which fit into the latter category, e.g. someone making crude ricin (potent toxin from castor bean) or isolating C. botulinum or B. anthracis from soil/animal carcasses and attempting to grow it up and weaponize them in crude fashion. A number of years back, Al Qaeda was reported in the open press to have set up crude laboratories in caves in Afghanistan to develop bioweapons. It has been well known for over 20 years that many options for small scale illicit production exist and that if a perpetrator wanted to pursue such, it could be difficult to detect or prevent. It is likely that there are many cases that are never mentioned in the press; law enforcement and intelligence just go about their business, and unless a prosecution is undertaken and judicial process is engaged, the public wouldn't hear about it. Law enforcement and intelligence have a number of methods, tactics and procedures they use to gather information, verify information, and work against adversaries at various stages in their "business cycles" with the goal of prevention or intervention as early as possible the highest priority. don't forget about hoaxes either. These are crimes and must be fully investigated. Law enforcement and intelligence seek to prevent or intervene early with these as well.


As a student currently studying forensics, I have recognized and learned a lot about the current flaws in forensics. What would say is currently the weakest study that needs more research to be done in order to validate it for forensic/scientific use? (I.e. Fingerprint analysis, blood spatter analysis, etc.)

jam198

In addition to your studies, I recommend that you read the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report entitled "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward" in which you'll see what the committee's view of the forensic science disciplines that need the most research investment. Namely, these are known as the pattern comparison disciplines (e.g., fingerprint, shoeprint, tiretread, forensic odontology and similar). Forensic odontology (bitemarks) seems to be the one that receives the most negative attention but additionally arson investigation (the aspect that relies on qualitative judgments on burn patters etc) also has received considerable negative attention. The recent President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology just released a report which summarized its analysis and made recommendations which seek to ensure scientific validity in forensic science. The Council makes recommendations for research pursuits. This would be worthwhile to peruse.


Dear Dr. Murch

What is your opinion on the current level of security against bioterror attacks in the US and NATO countries?

Do you feel the efforts are overblown compared to the risk and actual threat, that they are underestimating the threat and potential consequences and countermeasures should be stepped up, or otherwise room for improvement?

I am a researcher working on the epidemiology of Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis and Francisella tularensis.

WolfDoc

I think that awareness of the problem set and the extent of programs in the U.S. and some NATO countries is well developed. Some other countries are aware through various cooperative training and resource sharing programs but do not have well developed or effectively implemented programs. Remember that bioterror is a low probability - high consequence situation. Very often, governments have to make choices about prioritizations and the investments they make under budget constrained environments. I can't speak to all NATO countries but some have counter-bioterrorism as a high priority and have resourced and instituted various programs against priorities and available resources. These countries, including the U.S. through various programs, seek to help the others


Hi Randall, and thank you for doing this AMA.

I remember several years ago there was some debate in the scientific community about publishing research on generating increasingly pathogenic flu strains (for example).

How do you feel about publishing research that has potential to be misappropriated by would-be terrorists? What are the technological limitations preventing would-be terrorists from implementing bio-terrorism on a larger scale? What have you found are the most effective policing measures for preempting these types of attacks (and do policies differ between domestic and international terrorists)? Thanks!

SirT6

Yes, that was and continues to be an important discussion in the relevant scientific community as well as stakeholders such as the Government agencies with pertinent responsibilities and authorities. I was involved in the early days of these discussions as a member of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity when this surfaced. I believe that a balanced approach is appropriate. In my view, and many colleague I have worked with from various walks of science, we agree that preventing all illicit activity is likely impossible, but reducing risks is possible and requires a multipath and multilayered approach. While I do recognize the need and value for advancing science for public health, I also am well aware of the risks, as you refer to. After much debate on the NSABB and later the issuance of a national policy by the U.S. Government, at least there is a common framework to use to manage dual use biological research so as to strike the right balance between the two perspectives. Leading journals are very well aware of concerns and monitor publications from the biosecurity perspective. There has been significant engagement by U.S. Government agencies (and perhaps through similar mechanisms in other countries) with various communities (academic, Do It Yourself) to educate, discuss and advance responsible science. These are all positive measures in my view. These all contribute to a safer world, but do not and cannot prevent malicious and nefarious use of science. Law enforcement and intelligence must remain as vigilant as possible, though challenges exist and will remain.


Are there any other "hair and fiber analysis" type things being used?

How was that allowed to go on for so long and to such detriment to justice in this country?

MainAccount

Hair analysis, except through mitochondrial DNA analysis, is still used prevalently, while considerable restrictions have been imposed on what can be stated or concluded from hair analysis. Fiber analysis is still used; note that instrumented physical and chemical analysis are applied


Do you have any thoughts you'd care to share about the FBI investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks? It seems like a rare case where there were so few people who could have conducted the attack, and those same people were the only ones who could help the FBI.

From an outsider's perspective, it seemed like the FBI was really out of their depth here and just had to rely on whatever subject matter experts told them. Is that something you'd agree with?

helisexual

You should remember that the FBI's investigative and forensic capabilities for bioterrorism at that time were relatively new, having only been created a few years earlier. It was not possible then, and still is not, to have a complete array of validated methods which will address all investigative, relevant scientific and legal questions for all pathogens that could be used and all configurations of weaponization and delivery. During the course of the investigation, much new science had to be developed and validated, which took time. I refer you to the National Research Council report which reviewed the science used int the anthrax cases. Investigations of this sort have many twist, turns and uncertainties---and it's a dynamic not static process. i know this first hand. Not that mistakes and problems weren't encountered, but one understands realities of situations like this, and factors in that this was a high politicized case, and that ultimately the government lawyers (including the Attorney General) called the shots--a new perspective results.


Good morning Dr. Murch, thank you for taking the time to do this AMA!

I'm currently finishing my final year as an undergraduate Forensic Biology student. I'm currently applying to graduate schools, and have heard different opinions from people regarding being overqualified for jobs. Did you find that having a PhD ever made you overqualified for a job, or was it adventageous for you?

Another question, as I mentioned before, I'm studying forensic biology. Did you feel that the FBI provided enough training in regards to forensic chemistry methods, or were you expected to have forensic chemistry experience before joining?

Last question: How relevant do you think bioterrorism will be in the future, and how do you think this will shape the focus and importance of forensic science? Do you think that terrorist organizations like ISIS will transition from explosives to biological weapons?

Thank you again for your time!!!

jamixd

In-bound employees are expected to have technical degrees (not necessarily in forensic science), and some experience but are trained and certified in the respective discipline (including the methodologies used). ISIS has already used chemical weapons--it is possible, though not guaranteed that they will acquire, develop and use biological weapons


Just came here to say Go Hokies! :)

Krysys

Go Hokies!!


What is one thing that you wish people in general knew about cyber/biosecurity or biological weapons?

Additionally, as someone whose work involves WMD terrorism, how accurate are the much-employed tropes in crime shows and movies?

Thanks for your time! Go Hokies!

a905

Go Hokies!! Cyberbiosecurity is just beginning. With respect to biological weapons and bioterrorism, I would say that the public should understand these are low frequency and high consequence events, and bioterrorism doesn't necessarily mean that an epidemic or pandemic is going to occur. If even small numbers are affected, the perpetrator has likely achieved the objective


Given that the FBI has been force to admit decades of systematic misconduct at their forensic labs, why should we trust you?

Stalking_Goat

And how is this relevant? I was responsible for the first overhaul of the FBI Lab back in the 90s, which was accepted by every stakeholder that mattered. I was also on the NAS committee which issued the famous 2009 report "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward". The National Academies have then and many times thought that I have the expertise and credibility.


Did your field of work back at the FBI tend to make you more paranoid or did i make you feel safer in daily life?

lmolari

I'm not paranoid but am very sensitive and aware of what actually goes on in the world, particularly on the dark side of humanity


Dr. Murch,

Hello from a Virginia Tech undergrad! So exciting to see someone from the university on Reddit.

Now, my question: As a microbiology major with some interest in the forensics field, how do I go about pursuing this interest?

krisx3ftw

I'll answer this for all those who are interested in an FBI career and perhaps getting into this field, and then I will have to leave. Go to www.fbi.gov and review the requirements for Special Agent. As far as working in microbial forensics (a field I helped establish), there are a few Government agencies, a Government-owned/Contractor -operated lab at the National Bioanalysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC, specifically the National Bioforensics Analysis Center or NBFAC which supports the FBI and other agencies), some Department of Energy National Laboratories, companies and academic programs that work in this area in various aspects. Also, field and molecular epidemiology for public and agricultural health is closely related to microbial forensics through the science and investigative process. I know of classes taught in this field but not actual degree programs. But, degrees in infectious disease epidemiology or pathogen phylogenetics are excellent foundations for work in microbial forensics.


How much bio attack prevention resources are connected to monitoring food-borne attacks. It has always struck me that the lowest tech attack with the highest probability of success would be if some foreign dishwasher spiked the food at a busy NYC restaurant with something.

VirginiaDork

The food-borne pathway was one that was recognized very early on (circa 1996) as a viable and relative easy means for instituting an attack. There are various cooperative programs with and between U.S. Government agencies that address detection and response to suspected or actual food-borne outbreaks. Just from the response and investigation side, the CDC, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and FBI have been working (and actually responding) together for most of the last 20 years. It is not just the foreign dishwasher that can be of concern. Read up on the Rajneesh case in Oregon that happened back in the mid-1980s. Anyone with access to a key aspect of the "farm to fork system" and a viable "methodology" can wreak havoc. Cooperation, collaboration and coordination between various agencies aids in prevention but effective response, investigation and attribution and legal or other resolution


In the US about a million or more people die from cancer and heart disease and yet we spend millions on WMD biological weapons/bioterrorism/biological weapons with virtually no deaths reported. Even if there was a "terrorist act" we would still have million or more die from cancer and heart disease. How do you justify spending money in WMD research while 1 million or more guaranteed will die each year from cancer and heart disease?

Edit: Grammar

speaktodragons

What you say is true, but go back and comprehensively look at the effects and impacts of the anthrax attacks of 2001. Not to lessen the importance of cancer and heart disease, but you are comparing apples and oranges


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