Tuesday, October 23, 2001, Agence France Presse

Scientists Fear Miracle of Biotech
Could Also Breed a Monster


PARIS -- The events of the past six weeks have led some biologists

to fear that mankind's fast-growing store of genetic knowledge may

be less of a treasure chest than a Pandora's box.

By tweaking bacterial and viral DNA, a gene terrorist could create

an agent far more devastating than the bugs featuring in the

post-September 11 anthrax attacks.

Among the nightmares: antibiotic-resistant strains of plague,

tuberculosis and intestinal germs; a genetically-modified killer

flu; and pathogen "cocktails," such as a mixture of smallpox and

Ebola.

"In light of the September 11 tragedy, we can no longer afford to be

complacent about the possibility of biological terrorism," warns a

commentary published next month in the specialist journal Nature

Genetics.

"The revolution in biology could be misused in offensive biological

weapons programs, directed against human beings and their staple

crops and livestock."

The 20th century saw seven countries by known count -- Britain,

France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States

-- embark on programs to identify, manufacture and weaponize killer

agents.

But experts worry the next generation of these weapons will exploit

knowledge about the genome, with calamitous effect.

A couple of years from now, there may be as many as 70 pathogens

whose genetic code has been cracked. The genome of cholera, leprosy,

the plague and tuberculosis are already in the public domain, as is

a food-poisoning bug, Staphylococcus aureus, that is becoming

resistant to antibiotics.

DNA sequencing aims to encourage research into new drugs that

prevent, block or reverse those diseases -- potentially, the

greatest leap forward in medical history.

But there is also fear that a bioterrorist with an advanced college

degree, lots of money and a good laboratory could use this

readily-available data, inserting or swapping genes in bacteria and

viruses to create new, horrifyingly virulent agents.

These fears pre-date the current anthrax alert.

"Progress in biomedical science inevitably has a dark side, and

potentiates the development of an entirely new class of weapons of

mass destruction: genetically engineered pathogens," a US scientific

thinktank, the JASON Group, warned in the late 1990s.

These arms pose "extraordinary challenges for detection, mitigation

and remediation."

There is no known risk of any such attack at present.

But the potential for one certainly exists. Indeed, there are at

least two documented cases in which biologists have accidentally

created a doomsday bug.

One was a strain of the common intestinal bug Escherichia coli that

was 32,000 times more resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime than

conventional strains.

The superbug's creator was Willem Stemmer, chief scientist with

Maxygen, a California pharmaceutical research firm, who was

exploring the function of resistance genes in bacteria.

He destroyed his invention in response to an appeal by the American

Society for Microbiology.

In a case published last January, a pair of Australian scientists,

Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw, unwitting created a vicious strain of

mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice.

They, too, destroyed the virus and then went public with their

findings to draw attention to the potential abuse of biotechnology.

If a new infectious weapon were unleashed, little could be done

other than identify new cases and isolate them, itself a huge task

in today's open, mobile society.

Claire Fraser, who works at The Institute for Genomic Research

(TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, and Malcolm Dando, a peace studies

expert at Britain's Bradford University, say in the Nature Genetics

commentary that the picture is not entirely gloomy.

"The same advances in microbial genomics that could be used to

produce bioweapons can also be used to set up countermeasures

against them," they say.

One early advance could be a DNA chip capable of spotting any

biowarfare agents, even if they contained genes slotted in from

other species, thus providing early warning of an attack.

And fast-growing knowledge about the genome and cell functions could

help tailor new vaccines and antibiotics, although such drugs

typically need several years of safety testing before being

authorized for public use.

International cooperation and ethics training of civilian biologists

are vital for strengthening the safeguards against bioterrorism,

some say.

Efforts to build a tough verification protocol to the 1972

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have been blocked for

years -- ironically, by the United States, which said the secrets of

its pharmaceutical industry could be at risk from intrusion.

Negotiations resume in Geneva in November.

As for action by scientists themselves, some voices are calling for

tougher vetting of research proposals and a greater effort to train

students about potential dangers arising from civilian lab work.

"It's time for biologists to begin asking what means we have to keep

the technology from being used in subverted ways," says Harvard

University molecular biologist Matthew Meselson.

Copyright 2001 AFP