Nuclear stopped being the number one risk of total annihilation

Why would scientists want to publish the genome of the deadliest viruses online to be replicated in a lab? Anyone?

Yeray Lopez
Yeray Lopez

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I write this out of deep concern, hoping to contribute to the efforts made by many to raise awareness about the risks that a new US-funded project could pose to the world. Please read this, share it, and listen to the podcast below to understand how dire the consequences could be if we allow projects like Deep VZN to proceed.

While nuclear weapons have re-entered our collective consciousness, there is a potentially greater threat looming on the horizon: artificially engineered pandemics.

A very dangerous program

In the podcast below, Rob Reid and Kevin Esvelt discuss USAID's new "Deep VZN" program, which aims to discover new pandemic-grade viruses and publish their genomes for the world to see and, if desired, replicate.

This ambitious five-year project, funded with approximately $125 million, is presented as a means to strengthen global capacity to detect and understand the risks of viral spillover from wildlife to humans that could cause another pandemic.

The project plans to partner with five countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, assisting local organizations in conducting large-scale animal surveillance programs within their own countries and testing samples for viruses using their own laboratory facilities. With the help of the U.S. and questionable oversight, governments and private labs will soon begin searching for dangerous viruses in the wild.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Wuhan, China, troubling revelations about U.S.-government-sponsored research there continue to emerge. It is crucial to clarify the safety measures of programs like "Deep VZN" before proceeding simply because we possess the capability.


Can be a Virus be genetically engineered?

Absolutely, and at an increasingly lower cost. DNA, or RNA in the case of simpler organisms, can be thought of as the recipe for creating an organism. The information in DNA and RNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). The order of these bases, which can now be assembled in a lab, serves as the blueprint for creating a dog, a virus, yourself, and every other life form on Earth. But should these blueprints be openly published online?

Many deadly virus blueprints are already available on the internet, including Ebola, the 1918 Flu (which killed one in every thirty humans and was extinct until scientists decided to resurrect it), and Small Pox (published by the CDC).

Returning to the program in question, USAID expects the data generated by "Deep VZN" to be made publicly available, including lists of the genome sequences of discovered viruses, even before their potential risks to humanity are fully understood. This adheres to the principle of open data in scientific research.

The bottom line is that if "Deep VZN" succeeds, the recipes for artificially recreating viruses capable of causing pandemics, both now and in the future, will be accessible to anyone online. Kevin M. Esvelt, assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, states that around 30,000 people can currently replicate those sequences and create real viruses from these blueprints. However, with the constant reduction in the cost of DNA assembly, that number will increase dramatically.

Consider the level of suffering and economic devastation caused by COVID-19. Now imagine a scenario in which a terrorist group, a rogue state agent, or an individual with omnicidal impulses (the willingness to kill oneself and others) decides to unleash multiple engineered viruses simultaneously. This is not science fiction but a real possibility empowered by Deep VZN that could bring civilization to an end (I apologize for the alarming language, but this is a plausible scenario).

The podcast at hand

Rob Reid is a podcaster, author, and tech investor and was a long-time tech entrepreneur who did a fantastic job interviewing Kevin M. Esvelt about the matter.

Please listen; it is worth the while. Perhaps you can send your opposition to this program to USAID here.

Sam Harris | Special Episode: Recipes for Future Plagues
In this episode of the podcast, Rob Reid and Kevin Esvelt discuss USAID’s new “Deep VZN” program, which aims to discover new pandemic-grade viruses and publish their genomes to the world.
See it on YouTube

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My focus is on creating content that entertains, enlightens and sparks dialogue.