Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Health

Weapons of Mass Infection

Can vaccines protect us against a terrorist attack via virus?

By Jocelyn SelimFebruary 5, 2004 6:00 AM

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When reports leaked out that both Iraq and North Korea might have obtained supplies of the smallpox virus, the United States responded by spending tens of millions of dollars to stockpile smallpox vaccines. But Mark Buller, a microbiologist at Saint Louis University, warns that those vaccines could be useless if terrorists make a few genetic tweaks to the virus.

Aided by government funding, Buller and his colleagues set out to create a more lethal version of the mousepox virus. The researchers spliced a gene for interleukin-4, an immune-system chemical messenger, into the virus and then exposed a group of vaccinated mice. Infected cells immediately began producing unnaturally high quantities of the interleukin. “The interleukin-4 jammed up the signaling the immune system uses to mount its normal response,” Buller says. Unchecked, the virus multiplied freely and killed all of the mice.

Although mousepox is species-specific, Buller’s technique is not, raising the specter that researchers could engineer other superviruses, either by accident or on purpose. That possibility has prompted heated debate on whether this kind of research should be stopped. Buller argues that his research is necessary. “We’re creating a worst-case scenario,” he says. “Do I think that a super smallpox will one day be unleashed? No. Do I want to have the best understanding of what to do just in case it does? Yes.” Further experiments provided a glimmer of hope: Combining antiviral drugs with treatments that block interleukin-4 saved all of another group of mice, hinting that targeted treatments could help defeat a targeted attack.

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In