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15. U.S. Develops Lethal New Bio-weapon Viruses

The New Scientist, October 29, 2003
Title: “US develops lethal new viruses”
Author: Debora MacKenzie

Faculty Evaluator: Lynn Cominsky Ph.D.
Student Researcher: Brian Pederson

Mainstream media coverage:
CBS News, November 1, 2003
CNN News, October 31, 2003

Scientists funded by the US government have developed a way to make pox viruses incredibly deadly. Ostensibly, this research is being conducted as part of the plan to fight possible bio-terror attacks. The new virus kills all mice even if they have been given antiviral drugs along with a vaccine that would normally protect the victim from death. Mark Buller of the University of St. Louis has managed to modify mousepox, rabbitpox, and cowpox viruses so that they are deadly to vaccinated mice nearly 100% of the time through the introduction of an immunosuppressant protein called Interleukin-4 (IL-4). The modified pox viruses eliminate the immune system’s cell-mediated response. They are now immune to the antiviral drug Cidofovir, known to be the last line of defense in treating resistant viruses.

Scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra made the original discovery by accident, though their virus only killed off sixty percent of infected mice. As a side effect of introducing IL-4 into pox viruses, the virus becomes species specific and non-communicable, though no one is quite sure why this is the case.

The implications of this discovery and their disclosure are staggering. IL-4 is a protein common in genetic research and as such is available on the Internet for as low as sixty dollars. Furthermore the procedure is simple, something that a biology graduate student should be able to manage without trouble. The bio-terrorist potential for an IL-4 modified pox virus that infects humans is extraordinary. Like anthrax, only those who come into contact with the virus itself would become infected. The virus would not spread and infect the attackers. Neither would it require state of the art scientific facilities to create such a virus. Buller and his team are currently working on a drug to resist the new viruses, but have so far been unsuccessful in making it 100% effective.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS STORY, PLEASE GO TO:

The New Scientist website at: http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994318 or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at http://www.hhmi.org/news/karupiah.html

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