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Researchers, Biosecurity Board Debate How Open Virus Research Should Be

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the what-price-progress dept.

Biotech 66

New submitter rackeer writes "Exchanging research results is at the heart of the scientific method. However, there are concerns about whether investigations of pandemics, which possibly constitute a threat to the whole population of earth, should be shared. The debate about research on the avian flu was discussed on Slashdot before. Now the main parties have their own two cents to say. On-line at the journal Science are commentaries both by authors of the paper in question, who went ahead with the publication, and by the national advisory board for biosecurity, which advised against publishing."

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The Ferret is out of the bag (3, Funny)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001387)

From the Biohazards committee:

Recently, several scientific research teams have achieved some success in isolating influenza A/H5N1 viruses that are transmitted efficiently between mammals, in one instance with maintenance of high pathogenicity. This information is very important because, before these experiments were done, it was uncertain whether avian influenza A/H5N1 could ever acquire the capacity for mammal-to-mammal transmission. Now that this information is known, society can take steps globally to prepare for when nature might generate such a virus spontaneously.

The method they used (serial passage) isn't complex. The identification of the hemoglutinin protein as the determinant for increased infectivity is interesting, but not particularly relevant to someone interested in a "12 Monkeys" scenario.

Too Late.

We're doomed.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (1)

jhoegl (638955) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001463)

We have been doomed from the start.
Death by Petri dish, I never saw it coming.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (2)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001499)

From what I've heard, the methods used have been around since Pasteur's day. This particular cat was let out of the bag a loooong time ago.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (3, Funny)

outsider007 (115534) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001677)

That's a lot of o's. Do you find this that funny?

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (1)

Genda (560240) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002133)

That's "loooooooooooooool" not "loooooooooooooooong", the first is wicked funny the second is just a vowel-o-palooza.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (1)

Ihmhi (1206036) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004241)

That's a lot of o's. Do you find this that funny?

Nooooooooooooooooooo.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (5, Insightful)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001511)

Another interesting quote:

The life sciences have reached a crossroads. The direction we choose and the process by which we arrive at this decision must be undertaken as a community and not relegated to small segments of government, the scientific community, or society. Physicists faced a similar situation in the 1940s with nuclear weapons research, and it is inevitable that other scientific disciplines will also do so.

Sure worked for limiting nuclear weapons proliferation. Actually, it didn't, of course. The big difference between nuclear physics and biology is that the latter is thought to require less infrastructure than the former. This would make it more likely that a non state actor / random psychopath millionaire could obtain the needed equipment and skill set and go off to terrorize the world.

While likely true - a couple of million dollars could by you a nice lab and the post doctoral level talent to run it - it's not clear that you could appreciably slow down research by simply not posting experimental details. Once you post the results, the details can be left as an exercise for the student. If you decide to limit research entirely you risk being blind sided by someone who hasn't been so constrained.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (2)

msheekhah (903443) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001631)

The White Plague, Frank Herbert?

More War On Terror Horse Shit (4, Insightful)

Un pobre guey (593801) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001807)

This "controversy" is largely driven by War on Terror scammers who want to 1) set up a bureaucratic lobbyist-driven police state gravy train, and 2) loot the treasury using War on Terror hype as a pretext, much as they have done with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran. If you think that it is a new phenomenon to use the results of scientific research for nefarious purposes, or that the only major precedent is nuclear arms proliferation you are quite mistaken. Next time you have a few hours of free time and are near a university chemistry library with a hard-copy of Chemical Abstracts that goes back 100 years or so, I highly recommend browsing through it looking for the nastiest substances you can think of. They're in there, recipes and all.

We really need to stop believing all that horse shit just because some pompous windbag politician says it's true. Scientists, who know the literature, are justifiably reticent to cooperate with that crap unless their political aspirations demand it.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001957)

If you think that it is a new phenomenon to use the results of scientific research for nefarious purposes, or that the only major precedent is nuclear arms proliferation you are quite mistaken. Next time you have a few hours of free time and are near a university chemistry library with a hard-copy of Chemical Abstracts that goes back 100 years or so, I highly recommend browsing through it looking for the nastiest substances you can think of. They're in there, recipes and all.

There is a tad of a difference between a chemical or nuclear WMD that requires you to successfully deliver and activate it to where it has most effect - usually in places where security is relatively higher - and the one where you can infect a few people and then have it propagate all by itself, very rapidly at that.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (5, Insightful)

Phernost (899816) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002453)

It's the excuse that is inexcusable. Anyone who wishes to make use of this, or other research, has to have a lab and funding, whether nefarious or not. If you have that level of resources, you can bribe people, infiltrate, recreate the research from scratch, etc. Pretending that hiding the information from general scientific publication is a form of security is delusional at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002477)

Yes, I agree that the cat is out of the bag already, and this all smells of a security theatre. Just pointing out that this particular case is considerably different from nuclear or chemical weapon (or double use) research in the past, in a sense of how easy it may be to use for nefarious purpose with a very prominent effect.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 2 years ago | (#39012085)

>If you have that level of resources, you can bribe people, infiltrate, recreate the research from scratch, etc.

You omitted a very important "if": "...and if you care"

Bioweapons are hugely exaggerated as a viable source of terror. Nobody ever used it with results even remotely close to the terror induced by conventional explosives.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (4, Insightful)

Un pobre guey (593801) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002469)

I get your point, but I suspect you are missing mine. Forget nuclear weapons, they are a red herring in the current discussion. It is a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that "terrorists" can cause a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive and there are myriad factors that decelerate pandemics, which is why they are so rare. More to my point, that there is plenty of knowledge already accumulated over several generations, "terrorists" would be better off getting virus samples from several origins in the field (e.g. pig and chicken farms) and crossing them in Third World pig and chicken ranches at random, the more strains mixed in the better. That would eventually yield highly infectious strains by ordinary natural selection. They could then harvest samples from locations where the most people got cross infected and do it again, iterating until they have some suitably nasty specimens. Scientific censorship is a moot point. More than enough information is out there for all sorts of mischief, whether nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC). This "controversy" is plain old propaganda for the purposes of political manipulation, career advancement, and corruption, nothing more. We should stop believing this shit.

Also, don't underestimate the stuff in Chemical Abstracts and related sources.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (2)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002589)

It is a huge stretch of the imagination to expect that "terrorists" can cause a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive

But the whole point of this research was to prove that the virus can naturally mutate to the final state in the wild, it will just take it longer to do so. That's precisely why they didn't do gene splicing and such. So it shouldn't actually be all that hard to reproduce, especially if you aren't concerned much about safety.

use a pandemic with virus genetically engineered in a lab. It is far too expensive and there are myriad factors that decelerate pandemics, which is why they are so rare. More to my point, that there is plenty of knowledge already accumulated over several generations, "terrorists" would be better off getting virus samples from several origins in the field (e.g. pig and chicken farms) and crossing them in Third World pig and chicken ranches at random, the more strains mixed in the better. That would eventually yield highly infectious strains by ordinary natural selection. They could then harvest samples from locations where the most people got cross infected and do it again, iterating until they have some suitably nasty specimens.

Are you trying to get Slashdot censored? ~

(though the geek in me does wonder how many NSA keyword alarms you have just triggered by that post, and how many more will get triggered by me quoting it)

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39003043)

Nah, the terrists will never actually try this, since they don't believe in evolution.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003047)

God is great, so, inshallah, even evolution can be made to work if the cause is right. ~

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39003053)

Sure they will! God is infecting the animals for them, and they're just proving their worth by taking care of the animals until 'his divine wrath' matures and is ready to be unleashed on the masses of heathens.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

Un pobre guey (593801) | more than 2 years ago | (#39022847)

Are you trying to get Slashdot censored? ~

(though the geek in me does wonder how many NSA keyword alarms you have just triggered by that post, and how many more will get triggered by me quoting it)

Now that's disturbing.

Re:More War On Terror Horse Shit (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002725)

Completely agree. The (relative) absence of bioterror attacks confirms that their concerns are fabulously unwarranted.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002525)

Actually, it did. There has been no use of atomic weapons since Nagasaki. This is most certainly the result of the attitudes of the scientists who created the bomb who understood it's ramifications first and more completely than any military or civilian authority.

Re:The Ferret is out of the bag (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004409)

Sure worked for limiting nuclear weapons proliferation. Actually, it didn't, of course.

Because humanity is dead and we live in a postapocalyptic distopia? I'm not saying it worked without any glitches, but the fact that humanity, against all odds, survived the cold war and the times after it without eradicating itself pretty much proves that that nuclear proliferation was succesful in preventing nuclear weapons falling into the hands of irresponsible parties.

Comparing biological weapons to nuclear ones is pointless, as there are more differences than similarities. Aside from the prohibitive costs, there are many things that make nuclear weapons less of a threat. First of all, biological weapons can be far more destructive. A nuke can kill a few million people, but its area of effect is limited. Thus, in order to exterminate mankind one needs a large pile of nukes, and means to deploy them. The first one is hard because weapons-grade radioactive material can't be just bought, and producing it isn't easy. The second one is very hard, because well it's rocket science. If all research on rockets were published, North Korea could already reach the US. Second, nuclear weapns can be defended against, to an extent. With these defences in place, simply owning one or two nukes is not enough, one needs many of them to be able to overwhelm rocket defences. You might say that nuclear proliferation has failed in preventing countries from aquiring nukes, but it did success in limiting the number of those nukes so that they don't pose a threat. The third, and possibly the biggest difference is that with nuclear weapons you always know who attacked you. Biological weapons, however, can be released anonymously. You won't be able to respond, which takes the fear of a counterattack that is preventing a nuclear war today out of the equation.

While likely true - a couple of million dollars could by you a nice lab and the post doctoral level talent to run it - it's not clear that you could appreciably slow down research by simply not posting experimental details. Once you post the results, the details can be left as an exercise for the student. If you decide to limit research entirely you risk being blind sided by someone who hasn't been so constrained.

So you have never heard of classified research? It's perfectly possible to continue researching a subject without publishing the results. Although I'm not sure that developing an antidote is the right way to go, it could be more dangerous than the virus itself.

Security through obscurity (0, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39001423)

I believe this conversation has already been settled.

were doomed (2, Interesting)

FudRucker (866063) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001489)

sooner or later some scientist is going to kill most the planet by a malicious release or careless negligence, it is not "if" but "when".

Re:were doomed (2)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001865)

Do you have any support for your assertion, other than Luddite paranoia?

Re:were doomed (1)

FudRucker (866063) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001987)

nope, just Luddite paranoia and negativity, and I am a fairly good judge of human nature

Re:were doomed (1)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002115)

nope, just Luddite paranoia and negativity

Well, thanks for being honest. ;)

and I am a fairly good judge of human nature

People who say things like that generally seem to mean, "I assume all people are just like me."

Re:were doomed (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002351)

And statistically speaking they are probably right !

Re:were doomed (1)

FudRucker (866063) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002541)

RE:"People who say things like that generally seem to mean, "I assume all people are just like me.""

you know the old saying, "It takes one to know one" there ya go

Re:were doomed (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004511)

No, he assumes that at least one person is a bad one. Also, with potentially dangerous things such as this, preparing for the worst-case scenario is not irrational.

Re:were doomed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002739)

He believes it's better to let evolution kill us of rather then mess up while trying to prevent it.

Re:were doomed (2)

ChatHuant (801522) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003185)

sooner or later some scientist is going to kill most the planet by a malicious release or careless negligence, it is not "if" but "when".

Do you have any support for your assertion, other than Luddite paranoia?

Well, I think his assertion can be reasonably argued for, and the arguments should be looked at before dismissing the whole thing as Luddite paranoia. Let's compare the nuclear industry and the biological technologies currently being developed - I'll even ignore the intentional release of biological agents, and just consider the risk of accidents.

The first factor is the number of potential accident sites. Look at the difference in accessibility: nuclear technology requires expensive materials, and highly specialized tools and equipment. That makes nuclear development very controllable, and difficult to hide. In comparison, the tools and technologies required for creating new virus and bacteria strains are very cheap and growing even cheaper - see for example how the cost of DNA sequencing has gone down over the last few years. Moreover, most of the equipment necessary for biology manipulation is easily obtained with a trip to the local mall. It's a reasonable conclusion that more and more people will use those technologies, for research, development, or even hobbies, so there'll be many more potential sites for biological accidents

The second factor is the risk of an accident for a site. Nuclear industry is very safety conscious: very smart people have worked hard to create safe designs, lots of money has been spent in building the necessary infrastructure, and there are only a few hundreds of nuclear reactors in the whole world. Despite all that, accidents still happen. While some of the people working on biological development will be safety conscious AND will be able to afford the safety infrastructure necessary, many of them won't (if you spent a few thousand bucks for a biological reactor and a couple of thermometers, you probably can't afford another hundred thousand or so to build a negative sterile pressure room with proper sealing). In conclusion, the chances of an accident happening at a biological site can be considered much higher on average.

The third factor to consider is the potential impact of an accident: with radioactive materials, you need a certain amount of spill to cause serious effects; otherwise the consequences will be mostly local. Even major accidents still have only relatively local effects (see how even Chernobyl and Fukushima have mostly affected the surrounding areas, and had reduced impact further away). With a self-replicating biological agent, even a very small spill can have serious consequences. No nuclear accident can even theoretically kill us all. A biological accident can.

In conclusion, from all points of view the biological risk is much higher than nuclear. We're looking at a lot of potential sources of spill, difficult or impossible to track, supervised by people of varying qualifications, with varying (but on average not great) safety procedures, and with a chance to cause hugely destructive consequences. I'd say the GP's conclusion shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Something to think about (5, Insightful)

meerling (1487879) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001575)

Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE scientists share data, results, ideas, etc. If you limit or remove that capability, you will be wiping out a large portion of the creative and lateral thinking that often leads to new methods, as well as create much more waste of resources due to duplication of effort. And when you are dealing with something that involves infection rates, you really want MORE research on it, how else can you gain the knowledge to apply to real situations.

Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well. Besides, there isn't any invention of mankinds that wasn't used to further the ways and means of violence. Medicine, to keep your troops healthy and useful. Food Preservation, to conquer foreign lands. (In fact, that's why Napoleon paid people to develop it.), Vehicles and other means of transportation, you have to get your troops their. HIghways and roads, you have to get them their quickly. (Both the USA and the Roman Empire built their major roads for that purpose, the boost to trade was just a favorable byproduct.), etc.

So if you want to ban research from being shared among the scientists in that field just because it might be used for non-peaceful purposes, then you'll just have to ban everything. And hey, once you've thrown a tablecloth over one genie lamp, it gets a lot easier to justify doing it again. After all, it's just one more...

Re:Something to think about (1)

meerling (1487879) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001601)

sorry about the bad grammar and misspellings. (Like their when I meant there.)

Re:Something to think about (1)

StikyPad (445176) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001637)

Sorry I don't have mod points; good post even with the mistakes.

Re:Something to think about (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39001849)

Due to your bad grammar and spelling I took from the article that you wanted to give minority groups viruses that would kill them off. Next time you really should proofread. Fucking racist.

Re:Something to think about (2)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001979)

Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well.

Well, the argument from the biosecurity board essentially boils down to "there are no efficient countermeasures to this". In other words, they're claiming that we don't have any meaningful defense against this except for security though obscurity to buy off some time to better prepare to mitigate the consequences.

Re:Something to think about (2)

grumbel (592662) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002389)

Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE scientists share data, results, ideas, etc.

So should the Manhattan project have shared it's data with Nazi Germany? It might sure have speed up the science, but it might also have let to London getting nuked.

Can something like this be used in a combat or terrorist situation? Yes, but it can also be used to develop countermeasures as well.

The little problem with that is that we are getting to a point where an attack requires nothing more then a few thousands dollars and a mail order at your next biotech company, while a countermeasure might require billions of dollars and decades of work. So a little caution might not be such a bad idea.

Re:Something to think about (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004573)

This is a bit demagogue. By the same logic, one could just say: "Science is progressing at a reasonable pace BECAUSE there are people who can become scientists. If you limit or remove humans, you will be wiping out a large portion of the creative and lateral thinking that often leads to new methods."

So if you want to ban research from being shared among the scientists in that field just because it might be used for non-peaceful purposes, then you'll just have to ban everything. And hey, once you've thrown a tablecloth over one genie lamp, it gets a lot easier to justify doing it again. After all, it's just one more...

This again. Just because you think in black and white, you assume that everyone else does.

I Want Some Damn Bird Flu Zombies (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39001691)

Screw the National Advisory Board for Biosecurity. I want a damn zombie apocalypse. NOW!

Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39001693)

... will be more devastating then natural ones? After all evolution has had millions of years to experiment, not only that there is massive counter-offensive known as immune system and all sorts of other interactions that are not tractable to human minds. Why should anyone assume a pandemic will 'spread out of control' especially with modern facilities? The same thing was thought about nano technology, also known as "grey goo". Why would virus's be any different then 'grey goo' considering how bad human beings are at predicting what nature is capable of or not capable of?

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (2)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001757)

No one has ever built the kind of nanotechnological mechanisms that would be capable of self replication, much less "grey goo". Thus, without working examples of nano-machinery, we don't actually know if grey goo is a real risk or not. Every thing we have ever discovered about fundamental physics and working mechanisms in life says that self-replicating nanotechnology IS possible. Existing life is a working example of it. However, the engineering and technical barriers to building some are very large, and it will take many advances before we have any. I personal think the grey goo scenario is plausible, however, safeguards can be taken to make the chance of it happening by accident essentially 0.

Biological viruses are a different scenario. They are not hard to make, and while the chance of an accidental escape is low, if one WERE to happen and to reach a major hub, control would be impossible. Nature will not evolve organisms in the directions of deadly pandemics because evolutionary forces act against this sort of thing. However, doing it on purpose is straightforward and quite easy (the tough part is actually making the genetic changes actually stick in the real lab, but the code changes are not very complex at all)

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39001937)

Nature cannot predict the future. Pandemic-capable mutations happen all the time. Sometimes they fizzle out before they spread. Other times they out fizzle out after they've spread. But nature isn't thinking, "hey, this allele doesn't make for a good survival strategy right now, so I'll just shelve that one for later." Rather, the way it works is, the allele occurs, competes, and either wins, loses, or finds an equilibrium in the gene pool. End of story.

The same applies to grey goo. Nature surely has generated a grey goo-type biomachine before. For all we know it's living amongst us right now in equilibrium with the species it created via the selection pressure it induced.

Anyhow, even if man does create grey goo, logically it's because the alleles which gave rise to intelligent man were ultimately unsuccessful in their replication strategy.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

cforciea (1926392) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002049)

Biological viruses are a different scenario. They are not hard to make, and while the chance of an accidental escape is low, if one WERE to happen and to reach a major hub, control would be impossible. Nature will not evolve organisms in the directions of deadly pandemics because evolutionary forces act against this sort of thing. However, doing it on purpose is straightforward and quite easy (the tough part is actually making the genetic changes actually stick in the real lab, but the code changes are not very complex at all)

Nature is less likely to evolve in the direction of deadly pandemics, but that does not make it impossible. We've already seen a flu virus evolve in such a way that it spread orthogonally to normal evolutionary pressures to deadly effect in the influenza plague of 1918. You just need a microcosm to generate abnormal pressures for a while before spreading it to the population at large to cause significant devastation. Also, don't forget that while evolution takes place somewhat predictable on middle-range time scales, it is ultimately derived from random variation, so a disease-causing micro-organism doesn't have to spontaneously develop traits of actual ideal magnitude for transmission. It can "accidentally" go too far and kill a significant number of those infected while still being a viable evolutionary adaptation. It would likely hit an equilibrium that is less deadly over time, but that doesn't stop it from generating a pandemic in the short term. Or you could have an already deadly disease get better at transmission, and again it would probably eventually get less deadly, but you might not be happy with the wait.

All that said, I do agree that the possibility of an engineered virus is more terrifying, because it mostly seems like a question of a dollar amount if somebody wanted their very own personal pandemic. It might be a really big number, but the eventual existence of a psychopath with a big enough wallet seems more likely to occur in my lifetime than a natural pandemic.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002127)

What I mean is, an engineered virus could have a number of changes that were essentially impossible to arise by chance. You could mix in alleles borrowed from otherwise incompatible cell types, custom code, complex features taken from other viruses, etc. Random chance COULD cause these kinds of things to happen, but evolutionary pressure wouldn't cause them to happen, and complex changes can be such that they never will occur by chance before the stars burn out.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002173)

Evolutionary pressure doesn't cause any mutation to happen or not happen. Evolutionary pressure is merely the environment in which a random mutation occurs; and that environment is either kind to the mutation, harsh to the mutation, or indifferent.

Evolutionary pressure is unkind to virulent and deadly viruses. But that pressure only manifests itself _after_ that virus has decimated its target host. As far you, as an individual life is concerned, it hardly matters whether a mutation is going to be successful in the long run. In the short run you're dead.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002255)

If there isn't evolutionary pressure, you are relying on chance. There are limits to what chance alone can accomplish. This is why it took life about 3 billion years to evolve organisms as complex as us.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002891)

Evolutionary pressure only winnows mutations, it doesn't spur them.

You seem to be arguing that in order for H5N1 to become both virulent and contagious through aerosol there must be a steady state after each individual mutation, and the mutations must happen in sequence. But this doesn't appear to be required, not for something like this. They can occur independently and in any order, and eventually coalesce. And this can occur quite rapidly. There are billions of stock animals, each infected with billions or trillions of virii.

The pandemic variety is going to happen, and by pure chance alone. Worrying about humans doing it is counter-productive. The odds of humans doing it is far less than the odds of it occurring by chance. Don't let the scare mongers twist reality on this subject. We need vigorous and productive science in this area, and that's not going to happen with barriers thrown up.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (2)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002191)

Let me give an example of an "on purpose" change. You could add extra proteins to the virus, that ONLY when present in a human cell with a specific messenger RNA, the messenger RNA would bind to a receptor site on the protein and activate it. This protein would cause the infected human cell to express a gene that would cause it to produce and export some product. I like steroids for this because they don't depend on external receptors that the immune system can detect. So suppose you have the infected cells producing a variant of testosterone borrowed from an animal, or some other steroid.

Well, the infected cells would also express the nuclear receptor for that same animal-derived steroid, and be tuned so that ONLY if a critical mass of other infected cells is reached, the next phase begins.

Once critical mass is reached, the infected cells start producing some type of toxin to kill human beings. Or, presumably, do some other unspeakable thing. (no, turning them into zombies is probably not technically possible).

So you'd have a virus that spreads throughout a population, by aerosol, and ONLY once a certain incubation period has passed does it produce some horrible effect all at once, before medical treatment could possibly react. For example, if millions of the cells in the lining of your lungs made botulism toxin all at the same time, you'd be dead in a matter of minutes. There would be no treatment that could save you, and no way to easily detect you had been infected.

Now, this kind of weapon wouldn't be the end of the world. However, in principle it could kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people in waves, all at once, and the first few waves could happen before anyone with authority could react to control the virus somehow. (with drugs, quarantine, etc)

There are also only a limited number of people in the western world with the skills and training to do anything. Make ground zero for the weapon the CDC headquarters and the European equivalent, and I would imagine that the damage caused by this kind of weapon could be a catastrophic, western civilization collapsing event. Sort of how HIV targets the particular T cell type that is effective against HIV itself.

And, I'm not a virologist or a scientist with the training to actually do these kinds of code tweaking. I'm sure much more clever doomsday solutions could be thought of.

Another imbalance is this : making a biological weapon that causes harm is like a BILLION times easier than making one that heals. If it causes harm, but doesn't work correctly, the "bugs" are probably nasty side effects that still accomplish the goal of causing harm. To make something that would heal, you have to make countless tries to find a change that is safe, and then spend billions of dollars proving it is safe enough, and then more billions defending yourself in court when it turns out not to be perfect. It's a lot easier to break something than to repair it, especially a system as complex as a human being.

So forget the idea of using the same tech to build a defense.

Juicing with a virus (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002731)

You could add extra proteins to the virus, that ONLY when present in a human cell with a specific messenger RNA, the messenger RNA would bind to a receptor site on the protein and activate it. This protein would cause the infected human cell to express a gene that would cause it to produce and export some product. I like steroids for this because they don't depend on external receptors that the immune system can detect. So suppose you have the infected cells producing a variant of testosterone borrowed from an animal, or some other steroid.

But what would that do for sports? You come down with the flu once, and later you're outperforming athletes who don't juice.

(no, turning them into zombies is probably not technically possible)

Toxoplasmosis already causes zombie symptoms [cracked.com] , so I'd beg to differ with your assessment of "probably not technically possible".

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003645)

I don't personally think the grey goo apocalypse has real merit. You need to ignore some fundamental physics and the fact that life is already grey goo.

Let e.coli replicate at its max rate, and its the mass of planet earth in something like a week. Of course this does not happen for a number of fundamental physical reasons.
  1. Excrement! The source materiel must be precisely in the right proportions so that subsequent generations don't end up trying to eat it's parents crap. More importantly crap will have even worse material ratios so it can't use it if it the "same thing".
  2. Energy. It will need an energy source, it will produce heat. Its got to come from somewhere, the heat has to go somewhere. It will be rate limited at best, and energy starved often.
  3. Surface area vrs Volume. Heat dissipation and food adsorption is determined by the surface area rather than volume, already this stops limitless exponential growth
  4. Finite rates. Things are limited by transport and other process, it won't proceed really fast. In fact already modern life is pretty close to a lot of the limits in ideal growth media.

Also see my sig.

Re:Why assume engineered virus's... (1)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003775)

Here's the counter-argument. I'm aware of these objections.

ACTUALLY, all life on this planet has a nasty case of "version lock-in". For the last 3 billion years or so, the codebase that all life depends on has been full. Every 3 base sequence already has a corresponding codon, so there's no room left for new amino acids. And, translation of the codebase for any organism would require a computing mechanism to take all 3 codon bases and translate them into an equivalent in an expanded base system (say 4 codon bases).

Well, there ARE limits to what random chance can result in. HARD LIMITS. There's no real probability that a complex mechanism able to translate the code of an existing organism into an expanded codebase could ever evolve by chance. This is something a 10 year old could write a script to do in a few minutes, however, no individual cell can translate it's own code.

Why is this important? Since all life is stuck using the existing code set (no new, novel life can evolve because all the niches are already occupied by more complex life. Apparently, there are in fact limits to the things that life can occupy and evolve by chance) life is stuck being constructed of floppy proteins strung together with RNA. Various extremely complex hacks have been evolved to deal with this, but they are NOT ideal solutions.

If you could start clean sheet, and design self-replicating machinery the competent way, you'd probably end up with a bunch of extremely stiff, reliable, high speed components that work together in a complex manner to accomplish each step of a process. The theory is, said machinery, if it were made with diamondoid parts and using the best components we can find drawn from all over the periodic table (rather than the limited subset that life uses), would more than likely be much, much better at occupying the same ecological niches that existing life occupies.

For a simple example : all the plant life on the planet is made using cellulose because even though the fundamental physics are such that breaking cellulose down to simpler components (CO2 and water) releases energy, it takes a very complex set of biological enzymes AND a series of pH changes to do it, IF the enzymes are made of proteins constructed of amino acids that there are codons for.

You could probably design a cellulose deconstructing nano-machine that would be orders of magnitude more efficient and fit within a single cell, without needing pH changes, if you could make it from anything on the periodic table in whatever arrangement desired.

So there you have it : a series of micro of nano machines that eat cellulose for energy, use the carbon and other components to construct more of themselves (and perhaps a touch of rare earths or other exotic parts) and gradually take over the biosphere. That's the real grey goo scenario. Except without the grey or the goo, I'm more picturing a bunch of extremely rapid growing plants with carbon nanotube weaves in the leaves.

But no, this wouldn't happen by accident : a basic nanotech safety mechanism is to not put the instructions needed to self replicate any device into an object that is not macroscopic and possibly to shut down.

World War I (2)

retroworks (652802) | more than 2 years ago | (#39001887)

They had a lot of mustard gases and viral agents developed in WWI, which were never used. But I do feel nervous. Maybe it's not that the weapons are getting more dangerous... maybe the people on the earth are getting worse.

Re:World War I (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004269)

They had a lot of mustard gases and viral agents developed in WWI, which were never used.

Wrong. Yperite was widely used by both sides on the western front.

Re:World War I (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004593)

They had a lot of mustard gases and viral agents developed in WWI, which were never used.

But the ones that were used were already more than enough. The reason not to use some wasn't morality, but because other gases proved to be more efficient.

Blurring the line between science and alchemy (5, Insightful)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002025)

A great deal of modern science comes from the practice of alchemy, which begat chemistry and (less directly) biology. And a lot of what alchemists did looked like what modern scientists do: they had laboratories, they did experiments, they weighed and measured and otherwise quantified their results, they developed theories consistent with their observations. Similarly, modern astronomy and much of physics grew out of the work of astrologers, who, although they obviously couldn't experiment on the subjects of their observation, did take precise, repeated measurements of the apparent motions of celestial bodies, and developed mathematically rigorous models with considerable predictive power.

So what distinguishes the alchemist or astrologer from the modern scientist? The sharing of knowledge. Alchemy and astrology spread knowledge, if at all, by the apprenticeship system, in which well-respected practicioners would take on a small number of apprentices, swear them to secrecy, and slowly teach them the secrets of (their particular version of) the art, often with considerable penalties for revealing this knowledge to anyone outside the circle; the apprentices would then do the same in turn. The very idea of anything like the modern system of peer-reviewed, widely disseminated publication would have been anathema to them. The walls started to crumble during the late Renaissance period and were more or less completely down by the mid-eighteenth century, and thus modern science was born.

Since then we've seen incremental improvements, of which the internet and open access -- fought tooth and nail by certain journal publishers, who used to be allies of the scientist's labor of spreading knowledge, but have now become the last gatekeepers of the alchemical worldview -- are among the most recent and the most successful. But the basic idea is centuries old. It's thoroughly tested, and it works, in a way that the old mysticism, for all its occasional brilliance, never could. And any attempt to drag us back to the days of sages locking up their knowledge behind guild walls must be fought tooth and nail, or science itself will be in danger.

Re:Blurring the line between science and alchemy (0)

rastoboy29 (807168) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002531)

mod parent up

The more ominous parallel (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003023)

A great deal of modern science comes from the practice of alchemy, which begat chemistry and (less directly) biology...they had laboratories, they did experiments, they weighed and measured and otherwise quantified their results, they developed theories consistent with their observations...

Say, didn't a great number of Alchemists die of the plague?

We might get to see a repeat if data is not shared thoughtfully. There is no harm in caution around this.

Re:The more ominous parallel (1)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003117)

Caution is good. Paranoia isn't. And the best people to determine which is which are the scientists working on the problem themselves.

Disagree (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003483)

Caution is good. Paranoia isn't

Paranoia is just another word for "backup plan" and "risk analysis". A little bit of paranoia is healthy and necessary in most things.

It's good at this point to take a step back and see what makes sense.

Violence, oppression and human decency (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39002313)

In general, psychotic murderous people are somehow defective. The shoe bomber is more typical than the 9/11 hijackers. This is fortunate, and it's one of the reasons we've never had a terrorist group build a nuclear weapon and detonate it among a civilian population somewhere.

  However, if you abuse people, mistreat them, oppress them, steal from them, in huge groups and over generations, they will get increasingly upset, radicalized and dangerous. You will get dangerous people who are otherwise fully functional, capable of planning your destruction and acting on those plans. So if we (privileged Westerners) continue the current international order, which is horribly unjust, we're going to get desperate and angry people who are well enough educated to strike out in this way. Bioterrorism is a predictable consequence of our actions.

  This doesn't mean that these hypothetical bioterrorists are not responsible for their actions, or that their actions are justified, or any other defense-of-terrorists which apologists for the powerful might conjure into my mouth. It is simultaneously true that: 1) crimes are the responsibility of those who commit them, regardless of their motives, and 2) if you systematically give people a motive to commit crimes, you will get more crime. If you are serious about reducing crime, rather than about issuing a self-righteous polemic, you will seek to reduce the motives.

  Additionally, when large groups of the world's people are systematically oppressed, you do engender sympathy-for-terrorists among the victims of oppression, even when those victims-of-oppression are also the chief victims-of-terrorism for the terrorists you want to catch! This has been illustrated in painful clarity of course in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, if you are serious about combating terrorism, you start out by doing right by people; if you do, they'll turn the terrorists in.

  The easy availability of biomedical technology just raises the stakes.

Fewer Secrets and better information flow. (1)

Stonefish (210962) | more than 2 years ago | (#39002871)

The development of effective vaccines is the most effective strategy for reducing the potential for loss of life from this virus. This measure will increases the likelihood that you or your loved ones will die from something that could have been prevented.
There is a real need for the public to actively lobby for reductions in volume of information which governments are restricting "for the common good" as it is having a negative impact upon society's ability to mitigate the associated risks.
A significant part of the puzzle has been the renewed vigor of the cold war agencies in their war on terror, their practices are geared towards countering foreign intelligence services rather than the the current threat. For example you will find that while terrorist acts are criminal activities the infrastructure which exists in many countries actually effectively reduces agencies ability to counter and prosecute these threats which is disappointing to say the least.
Research organisation have known for many years what our security organisations are only just starting to realize, dissemination yields greater results than information partitioning, in fact the benefits from dissemination are exponential in nature, or conversely, limitations on information flow leads to an exponential reduction in your personal safety.

This is a two-edged sword (1)

Tastecicles (1153671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39003567)

On the one hand you don't want the wrong people getting a hold of such data, but on the other hand the more people with the ability to create an effective preventive or curative measure against such organisms have access to the data, the better. Who gets to decide who the right people are and (probably more importantly) who the wrong people are? The US? I wouldn't trust the American Government with my hat. My opinion follows: Science and international politics, to offer a simple solution, should be separated and kept separate. Science is about discovery and it's about knowledge, it should not be used as a weapon. So what if the application of such knowledge leads to weapons, benefits few and harms many; peaceful application of knowledge benefits everybody. Anybody who cannot or will not accept that has no place making decisions affecting it.

Re:This is a two-edged sword (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004633)

On the one hand you don't want the wrong people getting a hold of such data, but on the other hand the more people with the ability to create an effective preventive or curative measure against such organisms have access to the data, the better.

A cure would be more dangerous than the virus itself. Without the cure, only the crazy ones would use biological weapons, as they would die with the rest of the world. However, if someone were to develop a cure, they could release the virus while being safe themselves, and being the only ones with the cure would make them de facto leaders of the world. The only solution would be to release all knowledge about the cure, but you can't be sure that the first one to develop it will do so.

Re:This is a three-edged sword (1)

Tastecicles (1153671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005685)

Good point. Topic adjusted.

commentary on text (1)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 2 years ago | (#39011701)

>Estimates of the impact—including the death toll—of a possible future H5N1 virus pandemic for use in (inter)national pandemic preparedness plans do not generally exceed those of the H1N1 Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

This is like saying, "Mom, why do you worry? I can't get less than F for this test."

>followed by consultation with local biosafety officers and facility managers

As I suspected this is about US enforcing on other countries their own fear of terrorists as the result of their aggressive external policy

>We consulted with NIAID NIH staff, collaborators within our CEIRS center, and organizers of the ESWI meeting about the decision to make our results available to the public.

smmry:

Restricted Data on Influenza H5N1 Virus Transmission
Since its first detection in 1997, highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus has devastated the poultry industry of numerous countries of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Estimates of the impact-including the death toll-of a possible future H5N1 virus pandemic for use innational pandemic preparedness plans do not generally exceed those of the H1N1 Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

Our research program on H5N1 virus transmission, which led to submission of one of the papers that has stirred up so much recent controversy, aimed to investigate whether and how HPAI H5N1 virus can acquire the ability to be transmitted via aerosols among mammals and whether it would retain its virulence.

If we knew which mutations and biological traits can change the zoonotic H5N1 virus into a virus with major public health impact, detection of specific mutations in circulating avian viruses should trigger more aggressive control programs than those employed currently.

Finally, research laboratories that study H5N1 virus host adaptation, H5N1 virus in mammalian model systems, or use the virus lineage that was the subject of our studies have a need to know because they may unknowingly develop high-risk variants.

Viruses emerging from animal reservoirs have killed many millions of people around the globe without the help of direct human interference, and we need to be prepared for other naturally occurring events similar to those caused by influenza A virus, HIV, SARS-coronavirus, West Nile virus, filoviruses, and henipaviruses.

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