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9-Misc: Smart GE bio-weapons are now possible



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TITLE:  Smart bio-weapons are now possible
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by David Hearst
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,959473,00.html
DATE:   May 20, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


Smart bio-weapons are now possible

Viruses and bacteria could be genetically engineered to evade the human
immune system, to create a more effective biological weapon, a leading
researcher into bio-weapons said yesterday.

In the past 30 years biotechnology has been revolutionised by molecular
biology and genetic engineering. These techniques, used to control
infectious diseases, can also be used to create more effective biological
weapons.

Speaking at the conference on the future of weaponry, Professor Kathryn
Nixdorff, of the University of Darmstadt, said that dangerous micro-
organisms had already been produced inadvertently during attempts to
modify vaccines and viruses.

Russian researchers had created a strain of anthrax bacilli capable of
evading immune mechanisms: hamsters injected with the engineered strain
were not protected by the usual anthrax vaccine.

Australian researchers trying to develop a vaccine to prevent pregnancy
in mice stumbled upon a new and more virulent form of mousepox virus
which inhibited the production of a class of lymphocytes needed to combat
the infection.

Although humans were not susceptible to infection by mousepox virus there
was concern that the human pox virus could be similarly manipulated to
make it more deadly.

There were several ways in which modifying micro-organisms had potential
military use. Bugs could be given a resistance to antibiotics, they could
be made more resistant to the environment and thus longer lasting, and
they could be made more lethal.

But she dismissed the suggestion that information gained from the
sequencing of the human genome could be used to create a biological
weapon specific to a particular racial or ethnic group.

"At present this seems unlikely for several reasons," she said. "It has
been pointed out in several reports that races do not exist from a
genetic perspective; there is generally more genetic variation within
groups than between groups.

"Indeed, it has been suggested that a re-examination of the race concept
is due."

There was concern that the genome sequence information could be misused.
A research team was reported to have built the polio virus from sequence
information publicly available, but this was a relatively simple virus
and the feat could not be readily repeated with more complex ones.