THE NEXT BIOWEAPON MAY BE A TEXT FILE
IN 2011, AT a meeting in Malta, Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier announced that he had created a particularly dangerous strain of the H5N1 flu virus using the tools of synthetic biology. Unlike all previously known versions of H5N1 – known colloquially as the “bird flu” – this variant could be spread through the air between people, potentially leading to a global pandemic. This may sound like the machinations of a supervillain bent on global destruction, but it was instead the pronouncement of a medical scientist who hoped to hasten pandemic preparation through preemptive study of the most virulent flu strains.
Fouchier’s bombshell alarmed many public health experts, who questioned the reasoning and overall benefit of intentionally bolstering the disease’s potency. The episode also highlighted the frighteningly real challenges of “dual-use research of concern” (DURC) in the synthetic biology field.
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