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Forbes.com

 

The Biosniffers Are Coming

June 23, 2003

By Peter W. Huber

Biological weapons will inevitably arrive on our shores, and, absent vaccines, the only defense will be mass diagnosis, of both the willing and the unwilling.

Experts once scoffed at the notion of putting a computer on every desk. Coming next: the full-blown medical laboratory, as small, cheap and ubiquitous as the microchip. These microscale diagnostic systems will scan public spaces just as video cameras do, but will snoop on pathogens rather than people. They will be deployed as widely and invisibly as doctors, public health officials and ordinary citizens care to deploy them. The infrared imagers now used in some airports in Asia demonstrate that it's already feasible to check millions of people on the fly for the slightest sign of fever. The coming chips will scan for the SARS virus itself and much else besides.

Functional "micro electromechanical systems" (MEMS) are now being designed and built to measure molecular weights and analyze molecular structure. They can weigh biological particles by depositing them on microscopic surfaces that vibrate at radio frequencies--heavier particles cause larger changes in the pitch of the chip-scale tuning fork. Or they project tiny beams of finely tuned radiant heat or laser light and detect the feverish responses of the limbs and digits of the molecules thus excited. Or they can perform full chemical assays, using tubes, pumps and reactor vessels built into the same silicon chips. By such means the new devices will probe physical and chemical signatures just as full-scale laboratories do, but cheaply and automatically.

Within a few years, at most, they will be affordable and agile enough to be deployed in public spaces to gather and test passers-by at random. Chip fabs can build these microlabs on existing assembly lines; the devices are, in many respects, much easier to fabricate than logic chips, because their structures are a lot bigger than the gates that are now doped and etched onto microprocessors or memory chips. But chip-scale medical laboratories remain thumbnail-size products, their construction completely automatic, and, once production gets going, silicon fabs will churn them out by the millions, for dollars or pennies apiece.

The technologies will certainly be developed, if only to serve the huge and entirely benign market for medical diagnosis--the lab-on-a-chip will infiltrate and ultimately supersede the room-size alternative, displacing skilled technicians much as technicians have displaced skilled doctors. But homeland security could well provide an even bigger market. Biological weapons will inevitably arrive on our shores, and, absent vaccines, which are often unavailable, the only defense against contagious disease is to separate the sick from the well. That process begins with mass diagnosis--of both the willing and the unwilling.

Unpleasant though the fact may be, biological weapons transform their victims into unwitting collaborators with the enemy. When these agents arrive on our shores, we won't need the fevered imagination of a Joe McCarthy to find an enemy under every bed; the enemy will be on the bed, concealed within the fevered patient. Chip-scale technologies will make the ferreting out of these enemies feasible and affordable.

This is not a cheerful vision, but there is nothing cheerful about biological warfare. We have banished infectious disease so successfully in modern times that we have come to believe that disease is a private affair. When a disease like AIDS disproportionately afflicts one already marginalized group, our aversion to nonconsensual testing has, in some measure, eclipsed the horrors of the disease itself. One of the best things about SARS, ironically, is that it strikes so indiscriminately. The public health responses must, therefore, be equally indiscriminate, and can thus be far more intrusive and forceful than would be tolerable if the disease were more perniciously selective.

Laws that forbid profiling based on the condition of our own genes are now solidly in place. So much so that it's generally forbidden even to gather such information outside a doctor's office, with or without consent, and however relevant genetic information may be to, say, insurance or workplace safety. The lab-on-a-chip technologies now at hand will monitor the genes of our baleful fellow travelers, the pathogens that infiltrate our own bodies and seize the opportunity to infiltrate others every time we cough, sneeze, shake hands, kiss, couple or excrete. Much of the coming debate will be styled as one of privacy, but it is not possible to be "privately" infected with a contagious disease. The laws governing the development and deployment of biological sniffers and snoops should be written accordingly. Monitoring for--and then suppressing--infectious agents should now be our highest "environmental" priority.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/2003/0623/102.html

 

 
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