A Top Bioterror Danger: Making Existing Bacteria And Viruses More Virulent : Shots - Health News A committee of experts examined about a dozen different synthetic biology technologies that could be potentially misused. For each, they considered how likely it was to be usable as a weapon.

Report For Defense Department Ranks Top Threats From 'Synthetic Biology'

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Scientists are getting better and better at editing and altering genes. Making DNA is getting cheaper and quicker all the time. Now, a group of scientific experts has laid out how these new technologies could lead to new bioweapons. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has the story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: If you were going to imagine a genetically engineered bioweapon, you might dream up something like Clade X.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In Frankfurt and Caracas, the illness has killed an estimated 50 people. There are 400 confirmed or probable cases with additional reports...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's a fake news report about Clade X, a fictional illness used in a tabletop exercise held last month by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Experts in national defense and public health pretended to be government officials grappling with what seemed like a fast-moving, naturally occurring pandemic. But then came this bombshell.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: GNN has just learned a group calling itself A Brighter Dawn, or ABD, is claiming responsibility for the creation and intentional release of the Clade X virus.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The goal of this made-up group was to depopulate the Earth, so it put genes from a deadly virus into a more contagious virus. By the end of this fake outbreak, more than 150 million people had died. Tom Inglesby is the director of the center.

TOM INGLESBY: One of the goals of this exercise was to show that an engineered organism could be the cause of something that we are not really preparing for.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Department of Defense has been thinking about new biotechnologies. And at its request, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently convened a panel to consider how these tools could be misused. Its report came out today. Michael Imperiale is a microbiologist at the University of Michigan who chaired the panel. He says they considered a dozen different strategies for making a bioweapon.

MICHAEL IMPERIALE: We think the things that are of most concern are, number one, recreating a known virus.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says pretty much any virus can be made from scratch now, even smallpox, which is held under lock and key. We know that because a related pox virus recently got made in a lab using DNA ordered through the mail.

IMPERIALE: These things can now be done. So that's why that was near the top of the list.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another big concern was making existing bacteria more dangerous with simple tweaks like putting in antibiotic resistance. And then there's the possibility that a weapons maker might target the human microbiome, the bacteria that live in and on us all the time, so that our own microbes would manufacture dangerous chemicals and make us mysteriously sick. Scientists who weren't on the panel say that this is a very timely report. Pamela Silver is a bio engineer at Harvard Medical School. She does worry a little about the idea of ranking the threats.

PAMELA SILVER: Somebody might say, oh, here are the three things we have to worry about the most and then ignore the others.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She hopes that won't happen because what's impossible now might soon be much more feasible.

SILVER: There are two papers that just came out this week about a different strategy for DNA synthesis that may transform that industry in the next five years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why the report says it's important for the Department of Defense to monitor these changes. It also notes that while biotechnology has risks, it can also be used to speed the development of vaccines and medicines. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.


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