Smallpox 2.0, Here it Comes! There We Go! By Brian Simpson

     It is possible, given recent publications, that synthetic smallpox could be manufactured by terrorists and released, destroying the West, and maybe themselves for their troubles:

“Earlier this year, scientists published a paper describing how they pieced together segments of DNA in order to bring back a previously eradicated virus called horsepox. The paper, written by two University of Alberta researchers and the co-founder of a New York pharmaceutical company, was controversial because, as various experts told the magazine Science, someone could use a very similar process to bring back a related virus: smallpox. Smallpox, you’ll recall, killed hundreds of millions of people before the World Health Organization declared it eradicated in 1980. That was the result of a long vaccination campaign — so the idea of piecing the virus back together from bits of DNA raises the specter of a horrifying pandemic.

Two journals rejected the paper before PLOS One, an open access peer-reviewed journal, published it. Critics argue that the paper not only demonstrates that you can synthesize a deadly pathogen for what Science reported was about $100,000 in lab expenses, but even provides a slightly-too-detailed-for-comfort overview of how to do it. Some of the horsepox scientists’ coworkers are still pretty upset about this. PLOS One’s sister journal, PLOS Pathogens, just published three opinion pieces about the whole flap, as well as a rebuttal by the Canadian professors. Overall, everyone’s pretty polite. But you get the sense that microbiologists are really, really worried about someone reviving smallpox. MIT biochemist Kevin Esvelt, for instance, wrote on Thursday that the threat is so grim that we shouldn’t even talk about it:

At present, we decidedly err on the side of spreading all information. Despite entirely predictable advances in DNA assembly, every human with an internet connection can access the genetic blueprints of viruses that might kill millions. These and worse hazards are conveniently summarized by certain Wikipedia articles, which helpfully cite technical literature relevant to misuse. Note the deliberate absence of citations in the above paragraph. Citing or linking to already public information hazards may seem nearly harmless, but each instance contributes to a tragedy of the commons in which truly dangerous technical details become readily accessible to everyone. Given that it takes just one well-meaning scientist to irretrievably release a technological information hazard from the metaphorical bottle, it may be wise to begin encouraging norms of caution among authors, peer reviewers, editors, and journalists.”

     I imagine that if STEM researchers found a way that one could destroy the world, just from stuff brought at the supermarket, and sloshed together in one’s kitchen sink, they would still publish. That is their madness as children of Dr Frankenstein. Synthetic smallpox is a big worry. If this hit, one may go the John Steele way, and bug out to an isolated spot until humanity bit the dust. But, would the bug still be active after this mega death? Probably. Grim stuff indeed.

     The mainstream view is that vaccinations will take care of everything, if one has one, and that the pandemic does not first kill the vaccine makers.



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Thursday, 22 October 2020
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