Building a stronger mousepox to guard nation against terror

Some scientists decry efforts to alter viruses to make them deadlier

November 01, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Microbiologist Mark Buller says his only goal in creating a super-lethal virus was to make the nation safer from bioterrorism. Only by genetically engineering a "hotter" mousepox virus that could overcome existing vaccines and drugs, he says, could he devise new ways to combat even the most virulent disease.

"There's no chance it can get out of the lab. It can't infect humans. And it's important work to protect the American people," said Buller, a professor of molecular microbiology at Saint Louis University. What he can do with mousepox, terrorists might do with smallpox, and the country needs a way to respond, he said.

But since Buller revealed his experiments Oct. 22 at a bioterrorism conference in Geneva, some scientists have declared such research - which is proliferating as a result of the biodefense funding boom - counterproductive and potentially dangerous. Even if proper safeguards keep the germs in the lab, such experiments could pave the way for terrorists by pioneering new ways to make germs deadlier, they say.

"There's no reason the United States should be funding basic research for terror," said Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University biochemist who studies biosecurity. "That's essentially what this is."

Other experts worry that by deliberately engineering killer germs, even with good intentions, the U.S. government might provoke a biological arms race by feeding suspicions that the United States is covertly developing bioweapons.

"If we saw this work in any foreign program - if it was Iran, North Korea, Syria or Russia - we would say it's evidence of an offensive biological weapons program," said Milton Leitenberg, a veteran biological arms control expert at the University of Maryland.

In the face of such criticism, the White House issued an unusual defense of Buller's work yesterday.

"We believe this research is critically important to the biodefense of the nation," said Kathryn Harrington, spokeswoman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The design of the work was appropriate, and it even included developing countermeasures" for the virus, she said.

But the concerns about Buller's research apparently were enough to delay follow-up experiments by virologists Peter Jahrling and John Huggins at the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

Buller said this week that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases had agreed to carry out animal tests on cowpox virus altered to make it deadlier. But in a carefully worded statement, Fort Detrick spokesman Chuck Dasey said that no such testing has been scheduled.

"Dr. Jahrling and Dr. Huggins have been in contact with Dr. Buller, and samples of the [engineered mousepox and cowpox] virus have been sent to USAMRIID and archived," Dasey said. "But right now there's no approved protocol to do any testing with the viruses."

He declined to say whether testing may be done in the future.

The question of controls on research and publications involving dangerous germs that might be used by terrorists is being vigorously debated in the U.S. government and at research universities.

In a major recent report, the National Academy of Sciences declared that biotechnology has created a "dilemma in which the same technologies can be used legitimately for human betterment and misused for bioterrorism." It identified seven categories of "experiments of concern" requiring special scrutiny, including work to increase the virulence of a pathogen or to alter it to defeat vaccines or drugs - the kind of research Buller is performing.

But his work is far from the only high-tech biological experiment that has raised eyebrows.

Scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington have reconstructed genetic material from the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic that killed more than 20 million people worldwide and inserted some of its genes into a contemporary flu virus for tests on mice.

Last year, scientists from the State University of New York at Stony Brook created an infectious polio virus from scratch using information available on the Internet and DNA material bought by mail order.

With the National Institutes of Health biodefense research budget up six-fold since 2001, more and more scientists are conducting such experiments.

"Unfortunately the large expansion of biodefense research is going to expose many vulnerabilities," says Rutgers' Ebright. "The basic problem is that it's very easy to identify vulnerabilities and far harder to protect against them."

In the case of altered mousepox, the vulnerability was discovered by accident three years ago by researchers at the Australian National University. While experimenting with vaccines to sterilize mice, they inserted a gene for an immune-system chemical called IL-4 into mousepox, a virus that infects mice. They were surprised to find that the mousepox became extraordinarily virulent, killing 60 percent of vaccinated mice.

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