Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Urgent Need to Prepare for Manmade Virus Attacks, New Report Warns

A major U.S. government report warns that advances in synthetic biology now allow scientists to have the capability to recreate dangerous viruses from scratch; make harmful bacteria more deadly; and modify common microbes so that they churn out lethal toxins once they enter the body. The Guardian reports: In the report, the scientists describe how synthetic biology, which gives researchers precision tools to manipulate living organisms, "enhances and expands" opportunities to create bioweapons. "As the power of the technology increases, that brings a general need to scrutinize where harms could come from," said Peter Carr, a senior scientist at MIT's Synthetic Biology Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The report calls on the U.S. government to rethink how it conducts disease surveillance, so it can better detect novel bioweapons, and to look at ways to bolster defenses, for example by finding ways to make and deploy vaccines far more rapidly. For every bioweapon the scientists consider, the report sets out key hurdles that, once cleared, will make the weapons more feasible.
The Guardian references a case 20 years ago where geneticist Eckard Wimmer recreated the poliovirus in a test tube. Earlier this year, a team at the University of Alberta built an infectious horse pox virus. "The virus is a close relative of smallpox, which may have claimed half a billion lives in the 20th century," reports The Guardian. "Today, the genetic code of almost any mammalian virus can be found online and synthesized."
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