NBC Weapons: November 22, 2003

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For the second time, scientists have been able to build a virus from scratch, and it took only two weeks. The first time this was done was last year, when the polio virus was recreated in a process that took three years. The key to this bioengineering is having the genome (genetic map) of existing viruses, and more capable equipment and techniques for handling material at the molecular level. This makes biological warfare weapons easier to create, because the genomes of many viruses that attack humans are already known. And each year, more deadly (for humans, or other animals or plants) viruses are sequenced (genetic maps are created.) In the next decade, the equipment, and skills, needed for virus creation will spread. As that happens, it's only a matter of time before the technology is so widely available that terrorists, or, more likely, nations with evil intent, will be able to attempt the manufacture biological weapons with these techniques. What's particularly worrisome is that another set of technologies are needed to successfully modify an existing virus map to create a weapon, for it's easier to screw up this process. There's a certain amount of trial and error involved here, and the great fear is that bio-weapon engineers could accidentally make a virus that is both very deadly and spreads very fast. This makes the old science fiction scenario of a virus that nearly wipes out the human race that much closer to reality. On the positive side, there is enough variation among humans that no one virus would wipe out everyone, but even a death rate of ten percent would be quite a hit to civilization as we know it.

 


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