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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

Synthetic Virus Raises BW Concerns

Writing in Science on July 11, researchers from the State University of New York in Stony Brook published the results of an experiment successfully creating the world's first 'synthetic' or 'manmade' virus - a polio virus 'built' from commercially available, mail-order DNA, rearranged on the basis of genetic-sequencing information downloaded from the Internet. Once assembled, the activity and lethality of the viral material, apparently identical to a natural strain of polio, was 'successfully' tested on mice.

The experiment, conducted by a biomedical research team led by Dr. Eckard Wimmer, was funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of the US biodefence research programme. Although the creation of the viral material on this occasion required a well-equipped laboratory and significant funding ($300,000) - and although other, more genetically complex viruses, notably smallpox, could not be synthesised with the same comparative ease - the study raises the dire spectre of 'homemade' BW. Indeed, as Dr. Wimmer explained to the BBC on July 11, sounding the alarm was the sole object of the exercise: "The reason we did it was to prove that it can be done and it now is a reality. This approach has been talked about, but people didn't take it seriously. Now people have to take it seriously. Progress in biomedical research has its benefits and it has its down side. There is a danger inherent to progress in sciences. This is a new reality, a new consideration. ... The world had better be prepared."

Wimmer was quick to distance himself from suggestions his team had created life in the laboratory, telling Reuters (July 11): "No, I would not say I created life in a test tube. We created a chemical in a test tube that, when put into cells, begins to behave a little bit like something alive. Some people say viruses are chemicals and I belong to that group."

Although welcomed for providing a salutary warning of new dangers, the DARPA study also attracted some criticism. According to prominent geneticist Dr. J. Craig Venter, quoted in the New York Times on July 12: "I think it's inflammatory, without scientific justification... To purposely make a synthetic human pathogen is irresponsible."

Reports: First synthetic virus created, BBC News Online, July 11; Scientists build virus from scratch, Reuters, July 11; Scientists create a live polio virus, New York Times, July 12; New life for polio? Scientists synthesize a once-feared virus, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 19.

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© 2002 The Acronym Institute.