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An accidentally created rat killer virus could cause human disease

Fear: the virus will reach the terrorist organizations

"Haaretz" service
Photo: Reuters
Jackson, from the creators of the virus, with a mouse. The animals died within nine days

Australian scientists have accidentally created a deadly virus. Although the virus kills mice and not humans, there is a growing fear that terrorist organizations and hostile countries will make use of it.

According to the newspaper "New Scientist", researchers Ron Jackson, from an Australian research organization called CSIRO, and Ian Ramshaw from the National University of Canberra, actually worked on a means of sterilizing mice for pest control purposes. They took a virus called "mouse disease" - which usually causes laboratory mice to get sick immediately - and attached to it a gene that codes for the natural substance called interleukin-4 (Il-4).

The results were amazing: the Il-4 killed the mice within nine days. This, through stopping the operation of an essential part of their immune system. The gene also made the engineered virus unnaturally resistant to conventional vaccines.

"It can be assumed that if some idiot introduced human Il-4 into the human version of smallpox, the disease would be dramatically fatal," says Dr. Jackson. The description of the Australian experiment will appear in the issue of the journal "Journal of Virology" that will appear next month.

The new discovery comes after years of growing concern over the potential inherent in bacteria - including new forms of anthrax and smallpox - that could be used as biological weapons in times of war or terrorist attacks. Last year, the US allocated 1.4 billion dollars to protect against chemical or biological attacks.

The chicken pox disease, for example, was eradicated in the 70s, and for several decades there has been no vaccination against it. One of the scientists who managed the eradication operation warned last year that a new version of the genetically engineered virus would have a serious impact on the population if it found its way into terrorist organizations. The speed of modern means of transportation will cause the spread of the disease on a global scale within a few days.

Although there are treaties against the use of biological weapons, it is known that some governments violate the ban and produce such weapons. The United Kingdom and the United States have supported research on defense measures against biological weapons, which involves the treatment of deadly bacteria.

Is it possible that research to find new vaccines against cancer and other diseases could inadvertently create viruses that are deadly to humans? In some of the most promising modern vaccines, viruses are used to deliver genes into the body, and they contain genes that directly alter the immune response. But the scientists are not so afraid, since so far the findings have shown that changes in the genetic composition of viruses make them less dangerous.

One way to reduce the risk, says Gary Navel of the National Institutes of Health, is to use only viruses that cannot reproduce.
Security experts are interested in maintaining the freedom of publication of research findings, while at the same time preventing the information from falling into the wrong hands. D.A. Henderson, a former adviser to the US president, says plans to make microorganisms more dangerous appear regularly in unclassified journals. "I have no idea how we will deal with this," he added.

The Australian researchers published their research after much thought and after consulting with the Australian Ministry of Defense. Jackson explains why they decided to publish the findings anyway: "We wanted to warn the general public that this type of technology, which has dangerous potential, exists. We also wanted to make it clear to the scientific community that it should be careful, because it is not difficult to create dangerous organisms."
{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 12/1/2001}

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