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Three things I read recently made me sit up and re-examine the dangers that technology poses to the future of humanity. The first is the announcement made by scientists of the J Craig Venter Institute on their work on the proximity of the blood characteristic that allows them to change one type of bacteria to another type. This is the first time in history that a completely synthetic organism has been created. The second is the publication of Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science – considered to be one of the most famous scientists today. He said “I have put a thousand dollars on a bet: That in 2020, an example of a life-error or life-horror will have killed a million people.” The third is that scientists at Shanghai Second Medical University have created the first human/chimera animal (an animal with genetic material from parents of two or more different species) by combining cells from a human. and rats.
First information shows that technology is advancing at a breakneck speed and has the potential to change things in a fundamental way. This power is already being translated into the development of drugs and other products – the technology now makes 40 percent of the drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration each year.
The second indicates that scientists of the caliber of Sir Martin Rees believe that it is possible that this power can be used with malicious intent. Bio-weapons are the best weapons for terrorists and/or anarchists. The cost of setting up a laboratory for biotechnology research is much less than that of developing nuclear or chemical weapons. The production of lethal toxins requires a balanced equipment, essentially the same as it is needed for medical or agricultural systems: the technology is “dual use”.
Research teams have been able to recreate the polio virus, as well as the 1918 pandemic virus (which killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people) using only published DNA information and raw material from postal order services. . This knowledge and technology is already dispersed among clinical staff, academic research centers and factories. How terrorism is a real possibility in the next decade with the creation of methods of killing that have previously only existed in the realm of science fiction.
Sir Martin Rees also mentions the possibility of error on the part of otherwise responsible studios and agencies. Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project in Texas, which monitors the use of biological agents, said lab accidents happen more often than the public realizes. In recent years, the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK (2007), the death of a lab worker at Texas A&M (2006) due to brucellosis after cleaning high-quality equipment, the introduction of 3 researchers at Home- Boston University Medical School. (2004) to tularaemia or rabbit fever has occurred.. All these companies have worked well and under several regulations. The same cannot be said for other companies in different parts of the world. Perhaps the worst bio-error happened in 1979 in the former Soviet Union when an anthrax containing weapons escaped from a factory in Sverdlovsk, now known as Yekaterinburg, killing 68 people. Authorities covered the accident and only came to light in 1998.
If there is a large outbreak in the future, it may be hard pressed by government authorities on what kind of research and agents can be used in testing. This will not affect the investigation in rouge companies or by anti-social elements.
Chimera human testing in China is impossible in any other country in the world. Most do not, at least at present, have scientific ability. Those that do, such as the US and Western Europe have strict codes of conduct and regulations in place that expressly prohibit such testing. Even between the US and Europe however, there is a big difference in regulation. In the US, products of biotechnology have been extensively tested and sold. In the EU, few biotech products have received regulatory approval while most have faced a de facto moratorium.
Many countries do not have any type of regulation related to biotechnology or restrictions on the type of research that can be done. Terrorist experiments can be carried out, without the knowledge of the rest of the world, or the authorities within the countries themselves. These may even attract groups to set up research applications in the future – the same process that attracts groups and individuals to tax havens such as Barbados, St Kitts, Canary Islands etc.
Advances made in the field of biotechnology have the potential to change people’s lives for the better by influencing health, eliminating disease and creating miraculous medicines. But we still need to think seriously about what we need to do to prevent Sir Martin Rees’ money being breached.
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