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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 19:18 GMT
Deadly virus fuels bio-terror fears
Japenese bioterrorism attack
The threat of bioterrorism worries many experts
Scientists who accidently created a deadly version of mouse smallpox in the laboratory say lethal human viruses are only a step away.

The prospect of such dangerous organisms being produced relatively easily have left bioterrorism experts fearful of killer global epidemics.

The Australian researchers, reports New Scientist magazine, made one simple genetic change to a "mousepox" virus in an attempt to produce an effective contraceptive vaccine.

"Mousepox" normally causes only mild illness, and when all the animals undergoing the experiment died within days, they realised the potential of their discovery.

They say a similar change in human smallpox could produce a far more virulent strain which could even be resistant to vaccines.

Many scientists across the world are making subtle genetic modifications to disease-causing, or pathogenic, viruses, in order to carrying gene therapies into the body's cells.

Smallpox victim
The trademark rash of a smallpox patient
In this case, a gene which produces a body chemical called interleukin-4 was inserted into the mousepox virus.

The idea was to stimulate an immune reaction against mouse eggs, with a contraceptive effect - but the effect was to completely suppress the part of the immune system normally mobilised to fight viral infection.

Dr Ron Jackson, who led the research, said: "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."

There is a lot of concern about it - the entire world is vulnerable because no-one has immunity

Professor John Bartlett, Johns Hopkins University
Smallpox infection is already believed to have an approximate mortality rate of 30% - an increase, coupled with the natural contagiousness of the virus, could be devastating, say experts.

In addition, vaccination against mousepox appeared to have far less of a protective effect for those infected with the new strain.

In fact, only half those mice vaccinated survived infection.

Vaccine fear

Experts say tiny genetic modifications may not only increase the virulence of a virus, but also render existing vaccines useless.

Professor John Bartlett, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Biodefense Studies in Baltimore, US, told BBC News Online: "I wouldn't have thought you would need anything more virulent than smallpox already is to cause a global epidemic.

"There is a lot of concern about it - the entire world is vulnerable because no-one has immunity."

He added: "If a new vaccine needs to be developed from scratch, we are talking about several years minimum.

"There are enough rogue nations and dissidents trying to do this."

He named several countries for which he said there was evidence of the development of biological weaponry. One had taken the precaution of inoculating its soldiers against smallpox.

Smallpox affected child
The disease can disfigure or kill
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth told BBC News Online: "This is very worrying for us, and shows how unpredictable genetic engineering can be.

"We simply don't know enough to allow these experiments at present."

He called for much closer scrutiny of laboratory experiments.

So did Susan Meyer, of pressure group Genewatch, who is calling for more openness on the part of the biotechnology industry.

She said: "This discovery should really alert people to the fact that genetically altering organisms can have unexpected outcomes.

"Things don't stay in the lab all the time. You can have single gene changes that can make a big difference."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence's biological research facility at Porton Down said: "Making scientists aware of the full potential of their discoveries is important, but inevitably it carries the same risk in bringing possibilities to the attention of the unscrupulous.

"We seek to be aware of what possibilities are open to aggressor countries or terrorists. By the nature of things, this is always a game of catch-up.

"And there are already so many possibilities that absolute protection is not possible without the sort of constraints that are not acceptable ina free society."

We simply don't know enough to allow these experiments at present

Friends of the Earth spokesman
Smallpox, a much feared disease in the 20th century, was eradicated by a massive vaccination programme.

The US recently decided to retain some stocks of the virus for experimental reasons, even though some scientists were clamouring for all stocks to be destroyed.

The disease presents as severe headache and fever, with the trademark sores appearing after a few days.

The last confirmed outbreak of smallpox was in 1977 in Somalia - later that year, the World Health Organisation declared the disease eradicated.

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See also:

23 Apr 99 | Health
US retains smallpox supplies
07 May 99 | Health
Smallpox vaccine warning
05 May 00 | Health
Twenty years free of smallpox
27 Jul 00 | Health
Anthrax vaccine 'ineffective'
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