1900 GMT, 10 January 2001
                        New Scientist Online News

                        Killer virus: An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step
                        away from the ultimate bioweapon

                        Rachel Nowak, Melbourne

                        A virus that kills every one of its victims, by wiping out part of
                        their immune system, has been accidentally created by an
                        Australian research team. The virus, a modified mousepox,
                        does not affect humans, but it is closely related to smallpox,
                        raising fears that the technology could be used in biowarfare.

                        The discovery highlights a growing problem. How do you stop
                        terrorists taking legitimate research and adapting it for their
                        own nefarious purposes?

                        The Australian researchers had no intention of producing a
                        killer virus. They were merely trying to make a mouse
                        contraceptive vaccine for pest control. "But it's a good way to
                        show how to alter smallpox to make it more virulent," says Ken
                        Alibek, former second-in-command of the civilian branch of the
                        Soviet germ-warfare programme.

                        Ron Jackson of CSIRO's wildlife division and Ian Ramshaw at
                        the Australian National University, both in Canberra, inserted
                        into a mousepox virus a gene that creates large amounts of
                        interleukin 4. IL-4 is a molecule that occurs naturally in the
                        body. As part of a study aimed at creating a contraceptive
                        vaccine, they were trying to stimulate antibodies against
                        mouse eggs, which would make the animals infertile. The
                        mousepox virus was merely a vehicle for transporting the egg
                        proteins into mice to trigger an antibody response. The
                        researchers added the gene for IL-4 to boost antibody
                        production. The surprise was that it totally suppressed the
                        "cell-mediated response"--the arm of the immune system that
                        combats viral infection.

                        Mousepox normally causes only mild symptoms in the type of
                        mice used in the study, but with the IL-4 gene added it wiped
                        out all the animals in nine days. "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," says Jackson.
                        "Seeing the consequences of what happened in the mice, I
                        wouldn't be the one who'd want to do the experiment."

                        To make matters worse, the engineered virus also appears
                        unnaturally resistant to attempts to vaccinate the mice. A
                        vaccine that would normally protect mouse strains that are
                        susceptible to the virus only worked in half the mice exposed
                        to the killer version. "It's surprising how very, very bad the
                        virus is," says Ann Hill, a vaccine researcher from Oregon
                        Health Sciences University in Portland. If bioterrorists created
                        a human version of the virus, vaccination programmes would
                        be of limited use.

                        Alibek, who now works on developing novel treatments for anthrax
                        for the defence contractor Hadron in Virginia, says this highlights
                        the drawback of working on vaccines against bioweapons
                        rather than treatments. "I'd say any vaccine could be overcome
                        by one or another genetically engineered virus or bacterium," he says.

                        Is it possible that research into new vaccines against cancer
                        and other diseases could inadvertently create lethal human
                        viruses? Many of the most promising modern vaccines depend
                        on viruses to transport genes into the body, and contain
                        genes that directly alter the immune response. But researchers
                        have not been too concerned because the evidence until now
                        suggested that changes in the genetic make-up of viruses
                        invariably makes them less virulent, not more. One way to
                        reduce the risk, says Gary Nabel of the National Institutes of
                        Health, is to use only viruses that cannot replicate. "There are
                        some replication-competent [viral vaccines] around, but there
                        is increasing concern about their use," he says.

                        Defence experts are also worried about preserving the freedom
                        to publish medical findings while trying to stop the information
                        falling into the wrong hands. According to D. A. Henderson, a
                        former US presidential adviser, and director of the Center for
                        Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University in
                        Baltimore, what are effectively blueprints for making
                        microorganisms more harmful regularly appear in unclassified
                        journals. "I can't for the life of me figure out how we are going
                        to deal with this," he says.

                        The Australian researchers consulted their country's
                        Department of Defence before submitting the work for
                        publication, and only decided to go ahead after considerable
                        thought. A report will appear in a February issue of the Journal
                        of Virology. "We wanted to warn the general population that
                        this potentially dangerous technology is available," says
                        Jackson. "We wanted to make it clear to the scientific
                        community that they should be careful, that it is not too
                        difficult to create severe organisms."