Inferno And A Global Synthetic Pandemic

In Ron Howard’s film Inferno (the latest movie based on the popular Dan Brown book series), a mad geneticist seeks to wreak havoc on the world’s population by creating a virus he has dubbed “Inferno.” Ajay Fry asks futurist Trevor Haldenby, of the Mission Business if a synthetic pandemic is something that could happen in the future.

Here are some ideas that came out of the story:

Firstly, the precedent for bio-terrorism goes way back. The Mongol army would take soldiers who had died of the plague and fling them over the fortresses and castles they were trying to invade. Can you imagine the horror? That was seven centuries ago and we now know so much more about how bacteria and viruses work.

Since 2013, there has been a huge interest in what’s called CRSPR/Cas9 which is a gene-editing, gene drive—easily available online—that allows DIY scientists to basically edit and manipulate the genetics of micro-organisms much easier and more effectively than ever before. So there’s been a democratization of the tools of science.  And to be clear, most of the work that’s going on in viral design and in the customization of bacteria is really good work—aimed at helping humanity and our planet—not destroying it.  But, what happens if someone who has access to these tools, and is able to operate in a renegade way, what  happens if they decide to do something really bad?!

There are also data bases of genetic material like the 23andMe site that, in theory, could be used to compromise someone’s immune system. Like what if a political leader—like the President of the United States—had his DNA sequenced and someone hacked a secure system and got access to their genetic code?

To help people prepare and imagine the implications of a synthetic pandemic, Haldenby created a fictional synthetic biology company called ByoLogic—an imagining of where genetic-engineering in the future could go. This fictionalized company developed products designed to help improve people’s immune systems and enable them to live a longer, healthier life, but a team of bio-terrorists hacked the production line of this seemingly secure product and created the world’s first synthetic global pandemic. What he saw was that people panicked.

The future of bio-terrorism is indeed a scary place and the best thing we can do is try to prepare for it.  Simulations of the future – including science fiction – remind us of the challenges we might face down the road.  Films like INFERNO and 28 DAYS later shock us and give us extreme scenarios where bio-terror and the synthetic pandemics are wild in the world and they remind us of the importance of these issues.