TMCnet News

[June 15, 2006]


(Daily Mail Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) URGENT calls have been made for the law to be changed to stop ingredients for deadly biological weapons being bought over the Internet.

A shocking investigation has exposed how elements of the deadly smallpox virus can be purchased online then delivered through the post in Britain.

It is feared terrorists could use the same tactics to create a biological weapon.

Concern over the potential risk to public health last night prompted calls for the law to be changed to close current loopholes.

Smallpox is one of the biggest killers in history, having claimed at least 300million lives in the 20th century alone.

The virus was eradicated in 1977 but samples of it still exist in guarded laboratories in Russia and the U.S.

But now it has emerged that individuals posing as scientists can readily obtain sequences of smallpox DNA via the Internet . The Guardian newspaper ordered a 78-letter sequence of smallpox DNA - with three modifications to make it harmless - from VH Bio Ltd of Gateshead, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a company that supplies microbiology products.

The newspaper provided the name of a made-up company and provided only a residential address and mobile phone number.

VH Bio Ltd, queried the address but was told the company was moving offices and wanted to ensure it received the package.

Apparently satisfied, it put the vial containing the sequence in the post and it was delivered by Royal Mail.

The full genome for smallpox is 185,000 letters long and so a terrorist would need to order a whole string of sequences to put them together to make the virus.

Although not a task that could be performed by one person acting alone, a wellfunded

terrorist organisation

with access to a lab and PhDlevel personnel could do it.

There are legitimate reasons why researchers might buy lengths of DNA to help develop new treatments or vaccines and, because the industry is so new, it is largely unregulated.

Selling a sequence of a potentially deadly virus such 'Delivered by Royal Mail' as smallpox therefore does not break any UK laws.

Phil Willis, chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, yesterday led calls for this to be remedied.

'It is totally unacceptable that there is this massive loophole,' he said.

'I have written to the Government today to say this issue needs to be addressed urgently.' He had believed the indus-

try supplying custom-made DNA was covered by the same strict rules that apply to human tissue and was alarmed to find otherwise.

John Eldridge, editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence magazine, said current regulations came under the terms of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, an agreed treaty, but relied on companies monitoring themselves.

He added: 'The science to manufacture viruses from scratch only came to light in 2002 but the law has not caught up and there is no legislation to monitor who it is sold to.' Dr Alan Volkers, chairman of VH Bio said: 'The order that was placed by the journalist was inconsequential and would not enable anyone to create the smallpox virus.' He said it would be impossible to screen every order, but pointed out: 'There are no regulations that require us to make background checks on our customers or to screen our orders.'

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