Gene Engineers Create Monster Doomsday Virus

Jan. 10/01 Agence France Presse English

PARIS - New Scientist magazine was cited as reporting today that
Australian gene engineers accidentally created a mouse virus that kills
every one of its victims by wrecking their immune system, a discovery with
the potential for making the ultimate terrorist weapon.

The story says that the killer bug was invented quite inadvertently, while
the researchers were trying to create a contraceptive vaccine for mice as
a pest control.

They inserted into a mousepox virus a gene that creates large amounts of
interleukin 4 (IL-4), a naturally-occurring molecule that produces
antibodies in the immune system.

The idea was to stimulate antibodies to destroy eggs in female mice, thus
making the rodents infertile.

Mousepox, a close relation to smallpox, normally only causes mild symptoms
among the type of mice being used in the study, and was only being used as
a vehicle to deliver the IL-4.

But, the story explains, when the IL-4 gene was inserted, the engineered
virus ran amok, attacking the "cell-mediated response" -- the part of the
immune system that fights viral infection. All the animals in the study
were wiped out in just nine days.

Worse, the engineered virus was astonishingly resistant to vaccines. A
vaccine that would normally protect these mice from mousepox only worked
in half of the mice exposed to the killer version.

Co-researcher Ron Jackson, of the Canberra-based institute CSIRO, was
cited as telling New Scientist the discovery was a frightening indicator
of what could happen if the human smallpox virus was similarly modified,
adding, "It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4
into human smallpox, they'd increase the lethality quite dramatically.
Seeing the consequences of what happened in the mice, I wouldn't want to
be the one to do the experiment."

Anne Hill, a vaccine experts from Oregon Health Sciences University in
Portland, Oregon, was quoted as saying, "It's surprising how very, very
bad the virus is."

New Scientist was cited as saying the incident highlights how easy it
could be for some with bio-engineering knowledge to create a murderous
virus for which there would be no cure or effective vaccine, adding "Vast
amounts of time and effort have gone into policing the military's use of
biotechnology. But the activities of civilian biologists have been
ignored. Yet genetic engineering techniques are now so widespread that
potentially dangerous results are bound to emerge accidentally."

It suggests tougher vetting of research proposals; a greater effort to
train students in biological subjects about potential dangers arising from
lab work; and encouraging greater openness among biologists to discuss the
misuse of genetic engineering.

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