Polio Virus Created From Scratch in Lab
Will Smallpox Be Next? Not Likely, Scientists Say
In fact, any poliovirus released into the population right now "wouldn't do any harm whatsoever because we're all so protected," Wimmer tells WebMD. "Some say that poliovirus isn't necessarily a bioterrorist agent because it doesn't kill. We can debate whether killing is necessary to really cause terror. I don't think it is."
Patrolling the Internet for information, or screening buyers, is not necessary, he adds. "A bioterrorist would be sophisticated enough to use samples from laboratories.
"It would be a big mistake to curtail dissemination of information, because information even about dangerous pathogens leads to useful research to combat impact of these pathogens, including development of drugs against it or means to protect our immune systems. Curtailing free flow of information I believe is counterproductive," says Wimmer.
"We wanted to make sure that everybody knows -- and is put on notice -- that this kind of work can be done," he tells WebMD. "This kind of work is only a warning message. But we should note the possibility that such misuse of modern biomedical research and biotechnology could cause harm. Once we know that, we can begin to think of safeguards."
He says the WHO has already planned to stockpile polio vaccines to contain any outbreak and is continuing the vaccination program.
There's always the fear of the mad, isolated scientist not connected with any terrorist organization, Wimmer says. "That's the problem with anthrax, which we suspect was done by a very sophisticated U.S. citizen, yet we can't find him. You always have the fear of somebody crazy and intelligent. If that's the case, that person could have done what we did without our paper."
Re-creating a virus, however, "is a real complicated thing," he says. "It sounds easy, but in fact it is not easy."
"I would downplay idea that there's a threat to the public," Frederic Bushman, PhD, associate professor in infectious diseases at the Salk Institute for Biologic Studies in La Jolla, Calif., tells WebMD.
Bushman, a virologist, agreed to comment on Wimmer's research for WebMD.
In truth, the ability to assemble packages of DNA [to create an organism like the polio virus] has been available since the early 1980s, says Bushman. "There's nothing terribly new about this development -- the methods have been around a long time. But I'd like to emphasize that it's not terribly easy. It would take several people in a lab working for a couple years, and there aren't that many labs outside the U.S. that could do it."