Advancement in synthetic biology now gives scientist the tools to recreate dangerous viruses, a 221-page Department of Defense report has disclosed.
"Right now, recreating pretty much any virus can be done relatively easily. It requires a certain amount of expertise and resources and knowledge," Michael Imperiale, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan, said.
The field of synthetic biology – which is described as a futuristic field of science that seeks to master the machinery of life – can facilitate altering the structure of bacteria to make them more harmful as well as modify microbes to distribute lethal toxins.
“What people don't think about very often is the potential for an engineered organism to become an epidemic or even a pandemic. 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,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins center, explained.
The ability to make bacteria more resistant to treatment, creating harmful biochemicals, altering the human genome, altering human healthy bacterial microbiome, altering human immune systems, and creating new pathogenic organisms are among other concerns expressed in the report.
“What we wanted to show in the exercise was that there are different ways of getting to a pandemic. And we need to be prepared for all of them,” Inglesby stated.
NPR noted that making the simplest change to a virus can produce “drastic deficiencies” in key properties, making recreation difficult.
But, Imperiale, who chaired a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to assess the state of synthetic biology, added that “there are certain capabilities that may not be possible now, but in those cases we tried to identify what the bottlenecks or barriers might be that, if overcome, would enable those to be more possible.”
This commissioned report, authored by 13 experts in the field, comes from the National Academies of Sciences and is the first that outlines national security threats from biological weapons using genetic-engineering tools, such as the gene-editing CRISPR tool.
In 2016, the U.S. intelligence community had mentioned gene-editing as a potential biological weapon of mass destruction.
CRISPR is reportedly effective in both the animal kingdom as well as forests and fields.