Image from CDC.
AP photo/John Moore.
The mousepox that roared
The exotic mammals, especially the four-footed ones, wrought ecological havoc on Australia, which was short on natural predators. One control strategy, releasing mousepox virus to attack the pests, was quite effective, until the pests evolved resistance to mousepox.
In recent years, the pest-control scientists shifted gears and sought to use mousepox to sterilize the pests - to dupe the immune system into attacking the animals eggs as it would a foreign body. By the 1990s, scientists in Canberra had introduced a gene into mousepox virus, that seemed likely to cause the immune reaction.
The experiment succeeded, but in a roundabout fashion. The mice failed to reproduce, but only because they were too dead from mousepox. The gene-spliced virus even killed mice that had been vaccinated against mousepox.
One gene made the difference.
If one gene could do this to mice and mousepox, could it do the same with smallpox and humans? That's a chilling thought. Before smallpox was eradicated around 1980, it killed more people in the 20th century than guns and bombs put together (no small achievement).
The deadly, highly infectious nature of smallpox, together with evidence that the Soviets tried to make a weapon from it during the 1970s and 1980s, have made the virus a key concern of bioterror and biowar experts. Smallpox cannot be treated, but it can be prevented through vaccines. If smallpox, like the genetically juiced mousepox, could evade vaccines, it would become not just untreatable but unstoppable.
Of mice and men?
With the stakes as high as a return of smallpox, the decision begged for second-guessing, especially after the still-unsolved wave of anthrax attacks occurred in late 2001.
Could this type of scientific publication help terrorists make better bioweapons? Yes, says Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Institute for International Studies, who urges caution about this kind of research. While "... in general no restrictions should be placed on the publication of findings from basic research," increased scrutiny should be placed on "applied research findings related to, for example, the encapsulation of pathogens, increasing the virulence of microorganisms, the large-scale production of toxins, the transfer of virulence factors to non-pathogens and opportunistic pathogens, and others."
Such articles, he wrote, "should be carefully analyzed by peer reviewers or professional groups to determine whether they should be freely published or if some type of limitations should be placed on their distribution" (see "Open Publications as..." in the bibliography)
No smoking guns here
It would be naive to expect anything more exciting from the review of articles in microbiology, he indicated. "Biological research is an incremental process whereby it is unlikely to find a smoking gun, i.e., an article that strikes 'terror' if it were to be published."
Indeed, Kaplan asserts in a second email, "We have experienced no outside interference from anyone or anything. We have experienced no pressure from anyone or anything. The actions of the American Society for Microbiology derive directly from its code of ethics. Had such pressures been applied (a hypothetical) we would have responded no differently than the actions which you note, have been taken."
One modern science is an old hand at this kind of worry.
©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.