Bengaluru: “Clear and present danger” was a concept written in a majority opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919, with reference to circumstances in which free speech may be limited. Most people are more familiar with the 1989 novel and 1994 movie of the same name. This term is used here to emphasise the importance of immediate international action to ban dangerous genetic manipulation activities without blocking beneficial biological research. Way back in 1999, Health Canada reported 5,000 cases of accidental laboratory infections and 190 deaths worldwide. These did not lead to a pandemic because of immediate containment measures taken instead of denial and suppression.
The Chimera in Greek mythology is a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature, a lion, with a goat head protruding from its back, and a tail with a snake’s head was slayed by the hero Bellerophon. In the movie Mission Impossible 2 the cure for a Chimera virus is called Bellerophon. Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare should replace the term “Bacteriological” in the title by “Biological” to include viruses and other pathogens. US Federal Biocontainment Regulations earlier included 19 agents and toxins harmful to human health, another 18 primarily to animal health, and many to plant health. There will be many more now. Chimera virus creation, gain of function research (accelerating mutation in viruses to create deadly viruses) and other such dangerous genetic manipulations should be stopped without further delay.
BIO-ENGINEERING ROOTED IN BIO-WARFARE: The first biosafety facility was a cabinet designed in the US in 1943 for United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, Camp Detrick, Maryland. In the following years, three principal biological warfare laboratories of the US Army collaborated on biosafety, chemical, radiological, and industrial safety. It was only in the later 1960s that biological safety conferences were held with civilian researchers from universities, private laboratories, hospitals, and industrial complexes. It is obvious that for a long time these labs were under military control and were researching bioweapons. Globally, many labs are still involved in covertly developing bioweapons. Governments, institutions and researchers indulging in bioweapon research in total disregard to the Geneva Protocol, should be brought to justice for crimes against humanity.
BIOSAFETY LEVEL (BSL) EXPLAINED: BSL1 to BSL4 refer to precautions required to isolate dangerous disease-causing pathogens in a specialised laboratory. These specifications may slightly vary from one nation to the other. The precautions at the lowest level 1 require regular hand-washing and basic protective equipment, as in any teaching biology laboratory. Material for disposal must be decontaminated. Eating and drinking are prohibited inside the lab. BSL2 requires bio safety cabinets and specific training of staff in handling infectious agents that can become airborne and spread. BSL2 is inadequate for handling dangerous microbes, leave alone experimenting with them. BSL3 involves additional use of impervious protective clothing, a laboratory-specific biosafety manual, and a biosafety cabinet with a respirator providing safe air to the researcher. The lab requires negative pressure filtered air ventilation to remove potentially contaminated air. All staff are given relevant vaccines and kept under medical surveillance. The facility has to meet design specifications to allow easy decontamination and containment. Any clinical, diagnostic, teaching, research, or production facility handling deadly microbes, which when airborne can infect, needs to meet BSL3 specifications. The highest level 4 is used for handling pathogens for which there are no available vaccines or treatments, especially those that can be easily airborne causing severe to fatal disease in humans. In addition to all precautions of BSL 1 to3, each staff member in a BSL4 facility has to use a positive pressure suit, similar to a Hazmat suit or a space suit. Entry is restricted to authorised, trained staff and each entry and exit is recorded. On exit, every personnel must undergo decontamination. All waste, including water, exhaust air must be decontaminated. Such labs should be able to resist earthquakes. Biosafety has to be an integral part of systems of construction, of operation, training, protocols, measuring and monitoring.
RISKY PROLIFERATION: Known BSL-4 facilities for human, animal and plant pathogens (disease agents) as per recent estimates, are 10 in the United States, 7 in United Kingdom, 4 in Germany and many more in Europe, Asia and 2 each in South America and Africa. Many of these are in or near populated areas, making containment of an accidental leak very difficult and the consequences potentially disastrous. Separate BSL 4 labs are being set up to handle extra-terrestrial materials. In the US there is no central monitoring agency accountable for monitoring laboratories. Standards vary according to funding (government/private/academic) and the age of the laboratory. All these facilities should be under civilian control, away from populated areas, with activities subject to peer review and open to international inspection to verify compliance with the Geneva Protocol.
BEAST UNLEASHED NEEDS TO BE TAMED: People in every part of the world desire peace, progress, prosperity and freedom. Most people would never approve of violence, destruction, disease and death. Misguided and misinformed people are an exception. Author Lotus Coffman said “The chief support of an autocracy is a standing army. The chief support of a democracy is an educated people.” Autocratic war mongering regimes are an antithesis of democratic institutions. They believe in their own superiority and wish to humiliate or worse decimate the rest of humanity.
HALTING THE PATH TO HUMAN EXTINCTION: The dinosaurs became extinct either due to climate change (due to volcanic eruption/meteorite hit) or a pandemic. We are currently suffering from both, majorly because of our own suicidal activities. Stop tinkering with nature because “Nature friends those who are nature friendly” and “nature outsmarts those who try to outsmart it”. Hope we learn from history and act fast to avoid extinction. Biowarfare agents have replaced chemical and nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction. The term “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”, so often used with reference to the nuclear arms race, needs to be replaced now by a new term, “Human Assured Total Extinction (HATE)” as humanity hates bioweapons.
BIOENGINEERING GONE ROGUE: We urgently need a comprehensive ban on creation of dangerous new pathogens. To regulate biological research, we need an international agency with powers to search and enforce compliance on all facilities around the world researching dangerous microbes. Any government or non-state entity resisting such scrutiny should be declared a rogue pariah terrorist state or entity. It should be totally isolated socially, diplomatically, financially and most importantly treated as a containment zone with a total ban on travel and trade with it. All its and its rulers’ assets abroad should be seized and accounts frozen. This kind of Gandhian non-cooperation approach is based on “Ahimsa”, meaning nonviolence (from the Sanskrit phrase “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma”), and will need the cooperation of the rest of humanity.