Scientists warn that terrorists could release a terrifying virus

(ORDO NEWS) — In her new book, The Genesis Engine, futurist and Future Today Institute founder Amy Webb warns that terrorists can create synthesized viruses in a lab and use them for nefarious purposes.

Scientists have managed to reproduce potentially dangerous viruses such as poliovirus and smallpox before. It’s a contentious issue: some say the work could lead to a scientific breakthrough, but others see it as tantamount to government-sponsored sabotage.

In an excerpt from the book, published this week by The Atlantic, Webb points out that in 2011, Erasmus Medical Center virologist Ron Fouchier was able to alter the DNA of the H5N1 avian flu virus so that it could be transmitted from bird to person and person to person.

Fouchier’s research was funded by the US government, Webb said, but because of the enormous risk, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety asked scientific journals to edit part of Fouchier’s article to prevent the details from falling into the wrong hands.

Then in 2017, the Trump administration introduced new guidelines to fund and encourage the study of “enhancement of function” projects, that is, research that alters the genetics of microorganisms to improve their biological functions.

“It sends a clear message to other countries,” Webb writes. “The United States is working on a viral bioweapon. The last thing we need right now is a biological arms race.”

But the cat is out of the bag – open-source research papers and even “mail-ordered genetic material” that can be used in home labs could fall into the wrong hands, the researcher said.

Other scientists agree with this. In The Future Threat of Synthetic Biology, published in 2020, a team of researchers warns that engineered pathogens could be used to create “unnatural bioweapons.”

And this is a very real threat, especially given that in most cases there are no vaccines.

“Traditional force defense – population security strategies – will not work against an adversary who has adapted gene products or designer molecules for use as bioweapons,” Webb argues in his book.

Webb is not alone in this view.

“If you’re deliberately trying to create a pathogen that’s deadly, spreads easily, and we don’t have the appropriate public health measures in place to mitigate the consequences,” biosecurity expert Piers Millett told Vox in a 2018 interview, “then the thing you’ve created is among the most dangerous on the planet”.

Any potential responses to reduce the threat will be far from simple.

“Banning research to enhance function is not the same as completely stopping work on synthetic viruses, vaccines, antivirals or virus tests,” she added, adding that they could also be “used for useful functions,” such as antibiotics.

But given the risks, she said, “we need to monitor this type of work as closely as we monitor developments in nuclear technology.”


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