Expert Worried by U.S. Disease Research

The head of the Australian National Center for Biosecurity has expressed concerns about the possible ramifications of U.S. research that produced a synthetic virus similar to SARS, the Canberra Times reported today (see GSN, Nov. 12).

'They were allowed to create a new virus without absolutely knowing how dangerous it might be,'' Ian Ramshaw said. ''It's getting very, very easy now to make these things in the test tube.''

SARS, which has killed 800 people and sickened thousands since arising more than five years ago, is believed to have come from bats. In attempting to determine how the disease might have been passed to humans, scientists at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Tennessee and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill manufactured a bat virus on their own.

Outside safety assessments should be conducted throughout the process of designing and producing the virus, the U.S. researchers said in noting potential concerns about their work.

Once the genetic sequences of a virus is known, it takes limited know-how to actually produce it, Ramshaw said. A "designer DNA firm" would be capable of such production, he said.

''There's no regulation of these designer DNA firms around the world that prevents them from making these sequences that I will send off in an e-mail and it will be sent back in the post,'' according to Ramshaw. ''You don't have to have a sophisticated laboratory to do this.''

Australia has no regulations addressing the potential production of synthetic viruses, he said.

'This is a new life, a bat virus. Just by the sequence they've found, they've made the virus come alive with the new technology, and we haven't got any regulations in place to control and ensure there's no security risks associated," Ramshaw said (Nyssa Skilton, Canberra Times, Dec. 24).

December 24, 2008
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The head of the Australian National Center for Biosecurity has expressed concerns about the possible ramifications of U.S. research that produced a synthetic virus similar to SARS, the Canberra Times reported today (see GSN, Nov. 12).