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 make people aware of 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 bad things could go if we allow projects like Deep VZN to go on.

Now that nuclear weapons are back in our collective imagination I wonder what can be worse than that. Well, let me tell you: artificially engineered pandemics.

A very dangerous program

Below you can listen to 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 for everyone to see, and, if wanted, replicated.

This ambitious five-year project, funded with approximately $125 million, is presented to strengthen the 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 to help local organizations carry out large-scale animal surveillance programs within their own countries and test samples for viruses using their own laboratory facilities. Soon enough, with the help of the U.S. and with questionable oversight, governments and private labs will begin digging for dangerous viruses in the wild.

Two years after the covid-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China, troubling revelations about U.S.-government-sponsored research there continue to emerge. So I would argue that it makes sense to clarify the safety measures of programs like "Deep VZN" before continuing with them just because we can.


Can be a Virus be genetically engineered?

Sure it can, and cheaper and cheaper every day. Think of DNA, or RNA in the case of simpler beings, as the recipe for making up 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 those bases, that can be put together in a lab nowadays, is the blueprint for creating a dog, a virus, yourself, and every other life present on Earth. Would you like to have those blueprints openly published online?

Well, there are many deadly viruses already on the internet. Few examples of available blueprints are: Ebola, The 1918 Flu, which killed one in every thirty humans back then and was, in fact, extinct until a few scientists though to bring it back, or Small Pox, published by the CDC.

So back to the program, this article is about, USAID expects the data generated by "Deep VZN" will be made publicly available in ways and lists where the genome sequences of the viruses that have been found can be read. This, which follows the principle of open data in scientific research, will be done before knowing their potential risks for infecting humanity.

Bottom line, if "Deep VZN" success the recipes for artificially recreating, today and in the future, viruses that can cause pandemics will be available online to everyone. Kevin M. Esvelt, assistant professor of the MIT Media Lab, states that today around 30.000 people can replicate those sequences and make out of those blueprints real viruses. But with the constant cheapening of DNA assembly, that number will increase dramatically.

So let's think for a moment about the level of suffering and economic havoc COVID-19 is responsible for. Now imagine that a terrorist group, a state rogue agent, an individual with omnicidal impulses (the willingness of killing himself and others), to cite some possibilities, decides to put a few of these viruses, at once, in the world. This is not science fiction but a real possibility empowered by Deep VZN that could bring civilization to an end (I apologize for the big words, but that is a possible scenario).

The podcast at hand

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

Please have a listen; it is worth the while, and perhaps 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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