Australian scientists who inadvertently created a killer mouse virus said today the global Biological Weapons Convention must be given teeth to prevent such discoveries falling into the wrong hands.
The scientists, using technology that could be applied to biological warfare, had been seeking a biological contraceptive to halt mouse and rat plagues when they genetically modified a virus akin to smallpox with fatal results — for mice.
Annabelle Duncan, who was deputy leader of a U.N. team which investigated biowarfare agents in Iraq after the Gulf War, said the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BCW) urgently needed updating.
"It's not that you shouldn't do the research because you're going to cut off a lot of beneficial discoveries … it's making sure that it's very, very hard for anybody to abuse the results," she told Reuters.
"At the moment the convention says don't make biological weapons," she said. "There's no way of policing it, so if you think somebody is cheating you can't do anything about it."
Duncan is molecular science chief at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), which created the virus.
The genetically modified mouse virus, revealed by New Scientist magazine on Wednesday, is harmless to humans but it kills mice by wiping out part of their immune system.
Its creators say that the same technique could be used to make human diseases such as smallpox even more lethal.
New Scientist said the discovery highlighted a growing international problem — how to stop terrorists using scientific research to create deadly new weapons.
A total of 140 countries have ratified the BCW pact, a relic of the Cold War which bans the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons.
Negotiations to strengthen the convention have made slow progress over the past four years. Duncan hoped member states would agree to set up a U.N.-backed body with policing powers to monitor biological research.
The CSIRO scientists and colleagues at the Australian National University told Australia's Defence Department about their research before they submitted it for formal publication next month in the U.S. Journal of Virology.
They wanted the rest of the world as well as the scientific community to be aware of this type of technology and its implications.
"In the course of science you sometimes make unexpected discoveries — penicillin is one example," said Bob Seamark, director of CSIRO's Cooperative Research Centre for Biological Control of Pest Animals.
"In this case, we've found that certain changes to a mouse virus can render it more lethal and harder to immunize against. The best protection against any misuse of this technique was to issue a worldwide warning," he added.
The team created the virus by inserting a gene that produces a molecule called interleukin 4 (IL-4) into mousepox, a virus similar to smallpox.
Instead of producing antibodies to attack a mouse's eggs and make it infertile, all the mice, stripped of part of their immune system, died within nine days.
But Seamark also hoped that the Australian technology would help researchers elsewhere to design better, more effective vaccines.