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Biotech Science

U.S. Continues Biological Warfare Research 945

merryprankster writes "Researchers at Saint Louis University have engineered a strain of mouse-pox virus which kills 100% of animals it infects - even when the mice have been treated with vaccination and anti-virals. The deadliness of the virus is related to the addition of a protein IL-4 which shuts down cell-mediated immune response. The engineered virus is not contagious and does not affect humans but the research has drawn some condemnation as being dangerous and unnecessary."
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U.S. Continues Biological Warfare Research

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  • by puck01 ( 207782 ) * on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:06AM (#7347230)
    I graduated from St. Louis University Med school last spring and I had a friend in the grad program there who had mentioned to me several times they messed with some really deadly viruses that they had created. I always figured she was exaggerating....guess not.

    The interesting thing about this, according to the article, is the IL-4 gene gives the virus its potency, but at the same time keeps it from being contagious. Apparently, they are not sure why. Sounds like the real scary part will be once they figure that out and someone figures out a work around.
  • hrmm? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by proj_2501 ( 78149 ) <> on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:07AM (#7347241) Journal
    how exactly did they find out that it doesn't affect humans?

    Did someone slip some in some poor guy's drink?
  • by BWJones ( 18351 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:09AM (#7347273) Homepage Journal
    Come on now. This is nothing new. The U.S. has been conducting biological warefare research for years with no abatement as evidenced by a number of facilities in the west desert of Utah, and high level facilities all over the U.S. I should add that the U.S. is not the only country doing this, but given the cost of biological research, we are most likely at the forefront. Why do you think that the DOD has been so interested in AIDS research? As much as I would like to believe that the Whitehouse's goals and ambitions for AIDS work are good, there are obvious biological questions that are being examined with respect to induced autoimmune deficiency. There are many other potential viral and bacterial questions that could also inform biowarefare research as well.

  • by ynnaD ( 700908 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:13AM (#7347319)
    If it were discovered that it was North Korea, Syria, or any other nation currently on US's private hate list was performing this research (even if the research was being performed IN the country, unsupported by government funding) then that country would have been bombed, "freed", and had it's land cut into strips and sold to the highest bidder by now.

    Sadly, since this is papa US with the research, nothing can go wrong. This will only be used for catching nasty evil TERRORISTS intent on stealing your FREEDOMS.
  • Re:Seriously... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Luyseyal ( 3154 ) <> on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:30AM (#7347548) Homepage
    Blockquoth the poster:

    The point of researching these things is to not get caught with your pants down when someone else invents it.

    This is the North Korean and Iranian logic as well: "Let us research nuclear technology so we do not get caught with our pants down, lest the Americans invade." Indeed, having nuclear technology could prevent an American invasion.

    This is just one tack. If North Korea, Iran, etc. just wanted to embarrass the crap out of the U.S., they could stop (or never start... whatever) their programs and retort: "We have put down our weapons. Now put down yours."

    And of course no one in the major media would pick it up and Americans will continue to wage their "humanitarian wars."

    cynical today,

  • Re:Seriously... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sk8king ( 573108 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:30AM (#7347553)
    The cane toad is no doubt a bad thing, but one of the biggest threats we can possibly face is ACCIDENTALLY producing a self replicating "entity" that in an evolutionary sense will destroy us. Bill Joy from Sun microsystems had a good article/interview/something and in it he mentioned a threat far worse that Nuclear/chemical weapons. Any self-replicating being/thing could very easily get out of control.

    I don't know about the cane toad but I don't think it kills 100% of the beings it comes in contact with. This virus that infects only mice and kills them 100% of the time is a terrible thing. If it got out and killed all the mice on a continent [if we were lucky enough to have it stop there] imagine how that would affect the food chain....nothing to eat little bugs, nothing to feed birds/snakes etc.

    Its scary because its not science fiction now. We really could kill ourselves completely by accident.
  • by ianscot ( 591483 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:34AM (#7347602)
    No, they obviously haven't, however we don't live back then.

    I'm seriously curious: at what point do you think Christianity magically made this transition you're saying it underwent -- from the old, whacked-out ideas about good and evil to our supposed modern enlightened ones?

    I have relatives in Oklahoma whose southern Baptist faith qualifies in all the areas you're laying into Islam about.

    Before 9/11, the worst act of terror on US soil was by a couple of right-wing radical white guys. My Oklahoma relations were all for what Tim McVeigh stood for -- though they had some misgivings about his methods. Afterward they seemed rather torn about what had happened. They liked that it was a blow against the government, and had vague ideas about scoring points against Clinton somehow. But seeing the child in that firefighter's arms, that caused just a note of cognitive dissonance for them. Just a note.

    Walk back a step. U.S. post-civil-war reconstruction was torn apart by the KKK's acts of political violence. The KKK was and is almost exclusively made up of white Christians. They think of their religion as one of the buttresses of their movement, and cite the Bible in defense of their ideas. Your shift can't have happened before 1870, then.

    but the famine isn't going to visit destruction upon foreign countries.

    No, our right-wing, avowedly Christian President will take care of that.

  • Re:Seriously... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:41AM (#7347680) Homepage

    Oh.. so by that "logic" Saddam Hussein was COMPLETELY and utterly correct in undertaking biological research as he didn't want to get caught with his pants down if someone else invented it.

    Or is it that if the US does it this means it is "good" research, but if someone else does it then it is "bad" research.

    After all the US has never used WMDs have they...
  • by gfxguy ( 98788 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @11:48AM (#7347752)
    Maybe for the specific case of wiping out a specific species, this is not such a good thing. I'd like to know what effect it'll have on, for example, the vultures and the like that would eat the dead toads.

    But there are other parts of his argument that are very valid:
    The deadliness of the virus is related to the addition of a protein IL-4 which shuts down cell-mediated immune response.
    It'd be nice to think that they are working on a way to defeat this protein so that when somebody creates a human version, we'll have something to defend against it.

    Overall, though, it would be nice to just stop this kind of development anywhere and everywhere, so that we wouldn't have to think that way. But this is reality. I really have mixed feelings about it.

    On the one hand, another poster was right in that if we found, for example, Iran doing this, we'd be all over them for it. On the other hand, Iran and other countries are biological research anyway, so we might as well prepare for it.

    These are the things that scare me (from the article):
    • The work has not stopped there. The cowpox virus, which infects a range of animals including humans, has been genetically altered in a similar way.
    • The new virus, which is about to be tested on animals, should be lethal only to mice... [emphasis mine]
    • While viruses containing mouse IL-4 should not be lethal to humans, recombinant viruses can have unexpected effects, he says. [emphasis mine]
    • Why his group's engineered viruses are not contagious is a mystery, he says. [that scares me - they are guessing here]

  • I see (Score:3, Interesting)

    by aliens ( 90441 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:05PM (#7347950) Homepage Journal
    Sooo, when a engineered weapon only kills 80% of its victims and maims another 15% it's ok.


    Gimme a break. It's all evil.
  • by puck01 ( 207782 ) * on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:06PM (#7347956)
    This might really scare you then, but I know at least in the medical world we do things all the time that we are not fundimentally sure why it works (or doesn't work). An example, antidepressents. They do one hell of a job most the time of improving a persons mood and decreasing anxiety. We know they raise the levels of certain neurotransmitter and that in doing so, peoples moods improve. Why does increasing the neurotransmitters concentration improve mood? To date, I'm not aware of anyone that really knows. This is one of many examples that I'm sure would include the basic scients just as much if not more.
  • by luckytroll ( 68214 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:08PM (#7347990) Homepage
    Articles like this are the tip of the iceberg, and the ultra secret viruses are likely to be much worse. Not to mention, like the atomic secrets of the early century, the particulars have already leaked out to other parties. What we are seeing is the subtle harbinger of a much more disturbing kind of arms race. A lot of energy has been spent containing fissionable material, but nobody can contain the building blocks of life.
  • by JohnnyCannuk ( 19863 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @12:38PM (#7348340) not that some scientists at some univeristy did this. Read "The Demon in the Freezer" or "The Hot Zone" - this kind of thing has been done a few times before. The Austrailians did this a few years ago as part of research to wipe out the mouse population in their country (which was a foriegn species that was introduced and threw off the dlicate balance of nature on an island continent). This is old news.

    What is scary is how powerful this is and how easy it is to do.

    It is powerful because it engineers a new virus or bacterium by mixing genes/DNA from other species to magnify it's effect. It's easy because, although the article doesn't mention it, it can be accomplished by someone with a University level of Biochem knowledge and a $100 USD kit that is sold to undergraduate students. Previouslyu this was ignored because it was thought that to get a really powerful pathogen was difficult so this technique could not be used to make really nasty weapons.

    Then they began realizing that not all of the Smallpox stockpile could be acounted for. Then they realized that viruses like AIDS (originally only infected Chimps and other primates)and Ebola (Ebola Zaire, the most deadly strain, mutated to become airborne - but the strain only infected monkeys this time - a strain called Ebola Reston) could mutate and jump the species barrier. Same with prions like BSE (becomes CJD in humans).

    Suddenly "mousepox" or "cowpox" seem like they could be very dangerous, if mutated naturally and enhanced artificially. It could become a serious weapon because it is transformed into a Chimera - natural pathogen DNA and DNA from a spoecies it would not normally mix with.

    Back in the cold war, the Russians made such a Chimera that as a weapon could have devastaing results. According to Frontline, a Russian bioweapons scientist (who now works for us, thank god...not all of them do) combined Legionella (the bacteria in air conditioners that causes the pnuemonia-like Legionaires Disease) with Myolin. The result was a flu that went away after a few days. You seemed well but then die extremely quickly when your own immune system attacks and destroys the myolinear sheath around you neurons...and because it is in a common bacteria, it is undetectable by a doctor.

    Imagine someone creating that combination with a more virulent/contagious pathogen?

    That being said, if this is what we are hearing about - a non-contagious, 100% lethal virus at a university - imagine what is being done in secret for "national security" reasons....

    All that to say that while I think this kind of research is good if used for treatment and research to prevent them being used as weapons, I also think that it should be done under the auspices of WHO, not the US government or any other government. Have Universities do the reasearch, but do it openly with funding and supervision of scientists and authorities from all over the world. The UN is perfect for this. That way everyone can have warning and everyone can benefit from the research.

    Otherwise we risk the start of a biological arms race...and then the whole planet could lose.

  • Re:Seriously... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dman33 ( 110217 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @02:20PM (#7349701)
    Sure.. the Hitler thing is so easy to bring up. First off, the US was not exactly all that interested in fighting in that war... I believe we were trying to be somewhat neutral (although offering some unofficial support to some european countries.) You miss the point however because the posted you replied to was talking about current American foreign relations. The United States has gone from a reserved confident country that will stike only when striked upon to a country that will knock down any country that does not agree with "the American" way.

    (Some would call that a sign of weakness)

    I do not think many people argue with stopping genocide in progress, or defending from known terrorists... however when we attack a country for no good reason except for frustration and grudges and then write the rules as we go, well... some people tend to look at that as rather bully-ish. I think the United States has gone from a country that people respected to a country that looks paranoid and desperate. Of course the US is powerful... but the US also lacks the respect due to failed policy and poor long-term foreign relations.
  • by EvilTwinSkippy ( 112490 ) <> on Thursday October 30, 2003 @03:17PM (#7350456) Homepage Journal
    ESR said it best: The road to hell is paved by good intentions. However you can tell genuine evil by it's methods.

    I keep wondering of we are at the same point with bio-engineering today that we were with chemistry in the last 19th century. People were doing some amazing things, that turned out to be deadly things in the next century. Look at Nobel and TNT.

  • Re:Don't worry... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mahbidness ( 641513 ) on Thursday October 30, 2003 @04:04PM (#7351068) Homepage
    The cowpox virus is what we use to immunize against smallpox. If it could be altered in such a way, it would likely render our current vaccinations obsolete. What I find interesting is that the cowpox virus is a live virus, not inactivated like most others, and is administered as such. The vaccinee experiences all the associated symptoms, albeit localized to the vaccination site, which is carefully dressed with gauze and transparent op-sites to prevent spread. If this new strain is engineered to be fatal to humans, the current method of administration would no longer suffice.

I was playing poker the other night... with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 4 people died. -- Steven Wright