Beware the bugs of war

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Beware the bugs of war

Friday, 22 May 2020 | Suravi Sharma

It is time countries start paying attention to bio-security needs to protect their people and economies from potential risks

Genetic engineering is the frontier science of the 21st century and China has been one of the leaders of the game. We already know of genetically-modified babies born in Macao, China. We also know of an US engineer Juan Carlos claiming that he had created the world’s first human-monkey hybrid embryo in a lab in China, because it was impossible to carry out such pioneering research in his home country due to legal regulations. China is fast becoming the world’s capital for controversial science, with marked ethical lapses in medical research, including genetic modification of life forms. The same wealth of knowledge has been applied on microorganisms as well, to enable better therapeutic drugs and other proteins for treatment modalities as well as for capacity-building in the field of potential biological warfare.

How zoonotic viruses infect humans has been a major focus of modern virology. We know that SARS and MERS came from bats but that doesn’t convince one that the COVID-19 is of similar origin. US Intelligence says the Coronavirus is not “genetically modified” nor did an organism escape the lab. Professor Shan-Lu Liu at the Ohio State University says there is no “credible” evidence of gene tweaking. The virus’ genome sequence is available and had it been altered, we would have seen signs of gene alteration, insertion, deletion, or changes at the nucleotide bases. He added that the salient points in the sequence that differ from bat viruses appear natural, as the genes at those sites are scattered randomly like they would be, in nature. However, scientists say they cannot rule out genetic work by a proficient team of bio-technologists taking appropriate measures to cover  up. Also, outcomes of such research to diagnose genomic intervention cannot be arrived at quickly as they would be very elaborate.

It has been observed that genetic changes to a virus usually result in attenuation, which had earlier led to the belief that the risks of viral bio-attacks were low. Most suspected agents for bio-terrorism have been toxin-releasing bacteria like Anthrax. But scientists have now identified certain viruses as potential candidates for bio-terrorism like the Pox virus, Dengue virus, Ebola virus, Lassa fever virus and a few more.

A report in October 2003 said that a US Government-funded project had created an extremely virulent form of mousepox that kills all mice even if they have been on anti-viral drugs or vaccinated. The research brings forth the prospect of pox viruses being turned into lethal organisms even for people who have been vaccinated. Scientists say such research is risky as pox viruses have been known to cross species. But further work has not stopped as scientists say their work is necessary to explore what bio-terrorists might do.

Research found many of the modified viruses were not contagious and if they escaped from a lab they could not cause ecological chaos by wiping out a species. However, such discovery also meant that bio-terrorists might attempt to use the same trick to modify a virus with the motive of using it only on targeted person/s and not rebounding on the attackers, hence meeting the main criterion of a bio-weapon.

With the availability of complete genetic sequences of various organisms, there’s increasing concern about abuse of such data. The possibilities of mixing and matching traits from different organisms and combining these with insights drawn from human genomics to target some ethnic groups are very real. It is known that certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to some pathogens than others and genetic variations in some people manifest as varied disease susceptibility to microorganisms and even their response to medicines.

DNA shuffling, yet another technology with potential for bio-weapon development was used by scientist Stemmer to develop a new strain of E.coli that had reduced sensitivity to the antibiotic Cefotaxime. Such a scenario has the potential of leaving a patient resistant to treatment.

The genetic modification of life forms has been a controversial practice. There should be stringent regulations in place for genetic research work where permissions are granted only when the positives outweigh the negatives. The current pandemic is a stark reminder of the threat bio-weaponised micro-organisms can pose and the possibility of misuse of research laboratories, with instances of human survival threats breaking upon us. There is dire need for biotechnology regulations to be firmed up and an international regulatory body being formed with stringent ethical mandates. The current pandemic brings to light the necessity to revisit the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) formed in 1975 and reset the rules according to the current context. It is time countries start paying attention to bio-security needs to protect their people and economies from potential risks. There should be due strength-weakness analysis of our animal and public health systems and appropriate bio-security protocols must be put in place. This is an area that has been overlooked for decades and must now be revived for the health and survival of our nation/s and species.

(The writer is an author and a doctor by profession)

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