Scientists are worried that new technology may give people the ability to bring back smallpox - the virus that killed hundreds of millions of people before it was eradicated in 1980 - and use it as a weapon.
The deadly virus was eradicated nearly 40 years ago following an extensive vaccination campaign. However a recent study which managed to bring back the virus horsepox, by piecing together bits of DNA, has signalled the potential for the virus to become a bioweapon.
University of Alberta researchers unveiled their controversial creation of the horsepox virus using synthetic biology in a study released January, 2018. The Canadian microbiologists revived the virus by purchasing synthetic DNA stranding online for about $100,000.
While the technology has the capacity to create lifesaving human organs, critics are warning this development can also have disastrous results. In theory, the same method could be used to manufacture the smallpox virus for a relatively low cost.
“Despite entirely predictable advances in DNA assembly, every human with an internet connection can access the genetic blueprints of viruses that might kill millions,” warned MIT biochemist Kevin Esvelt in a study published last week.
“These and worse hazards are conveniently summarized by certain Wikipedia articles, which helpfully cite technical literature relevant to misuse,” he added.
In fact Esvelt went so far as to warn the that the unlimited access millions of humans have to information about this technology is already so great, we shouldn’t be even discussing the matter for fear of planting the seed.
“Note the deliberate absence of citations in the above paragraph. Citing or linking to already public information hazards may seem nearly harmless, but each instance contributes to a tragedy of the commons in which truly dangerous technical details become readily accessible to everyone,” he warned.
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“Given that it takes just one well-meaning scientist to irretrievably release a technological information hazard from the metaphorical bottle, it may be wise to begin encouraging norms of caution among authors, peer reviewers, editors, and journalists.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are already reportedly meeting with the Department of Defense’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program to assess the possible threat posed by synthetic biology.
Fortunately, 178 countries who signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention agree that biological weapons have no place in modern warfare. While the threat that terrorists may utilize the technology remains; as it stands, creating and distributing a virus would be very difficult without experts and significant resources.
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