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Creating a Terrorist Weapon?by Accident

Scientists trying to reduce the number of mice in Australia ended up creating a bioweapon instead?so why couldn't terrorists do the same thing?

Ean Higgins writes in The Australian that immunologists Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw injected 10 mice with a mousepox virus that had been modified to trick the mice's immune systems into making their eggs infertile. The plan was for the mice to stay healthy, so they could pass their altered genes along to others. But instead the mice all ended up dead. The researchers created a terrorist weapon by accident.

This experiment proves that genetic engineering can turn ordinary diseases into bioweapons. "The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man," says the CIA. "The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world's most frightening weapons."

If scientific advances in genetic engineering get into the wrong hands, it could be bad for all of us. For instance, anthrax, which killed people when it was sent to them in powdered form, is not very contagious in its normal form and very rarely kills. If it could be engineered so it was passed from one person to another, it would be even more dangerous than the powered form that has already been created in bioweapons labs.

"You could, for example, modify a bird flu to make it more infectious among humans. Just chop up the bird flu and chop up conventional human flu, and make a recombinant," says bioengineer Stephen Prowse.

Smallpox, which is a major killer, was eradicated in 1980 and stocks are kept safely hidden away in the U.S. and Russia. But animal diseases that are related to smallpox could be engineered to become just as infectious. Monkey pox would be "generally available," Ramshaw says, as would camel pox, which is "all over the place in the Middle East" and has 99% of the same genetic make-up as human smallpox. Ramshaw says, "The technology is such that you are going to be able to do lots more things than have been done in the past."

If a disease was engineered to become both more dangerous and contagious, we could see "suicide bioterrorism," where a volunteer is injected with a disease, then sent into populous areas to spread it.

Terrorism expert Clive Williams doesn't think al Qaeda is likely to do this. He says the risk is more likely to come from "religious sects who have scientists among their membership" or "a scientist who has gone a bit potty" (like the U.S. scientist who reportedly mailed out that powdered anthrax?)

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