Three years ago gene-splicing biologists at the Australian National University in Canberra were seeking a contraceptive vaccine for mice to reduce the pest population. In the process, they unexpectedly transformed a virus for the rodent disease mousepox into a highly lethal pathogen that kills 60 percent of infected mice, even those that are normally immune. American researchers continuing that line of work recently reported at a conference in Geneva that they had produced a similar virus that is nearly 100 percent fatal.
The rationale for such experiments is that they might assist the authorities in preparing for bioterror attacks. The counterargument is that they might aid bioterrorists. (Fortunately, the changes that make these pox viruses so harmful also seem to render them noncontagious.) Concerns are not restricted to projects with obvious relevance to germ warfare; the broader worry is that even innocuous research might be misused. The policy question becomes: Is biology too dangerous to be entrusted to biologists?
This article was originally published with the title Can Biologists Be Trusted?.