As scientists alter viruses to produce potentially deadly mutations, could their findings be used by terrorists? How well prepared is the UK to deal with biological threats?
Dutch and American scientists have succeeded in mutating a deadly bird-flu virus to make it easily transmissible to humans. If it got out, it could start a fatal epidemic. They keep it securely locked away in their laboratories, but want to publish the biological recipe for making it. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government is pressing them to keep the details of their experiments secret for fear that bio-terrorists could use the organism to kill hundreds of millions of people.
In the UK there are more than 300 laboratories working on the second highest danger level organisms such as tuberculosis. In 10 of them, they work at the highest risk level on viruses like ebola and the most deadly strains of flu. Every year there are hundreds of biological related incidents reported to the Health and Safety Executive but while the headline numbers are published the details are shrouded in secrecy and rarely come to light.
Meanwhile, a rapidly developing branch of science known as 'synthetic biology' offers dramatic possibilities for developing new vaccines and targeting many lethal diseases. But does it also increase the risk that newly-created organisms could be used for harmful purposes as the necessary research techniques spread out from authorised laboratories to a network of DIY enthusiasts?
There is growing concern that that biological techniques are advancing so quickly that they outstrip the mechanisms to control them. The FBI has tasked a unit to monitor the DIY enthusiasts but admits it only has limited resources to do so.
Could genetic mutation of pathogens become as commonplace as home-brewing? And how well protected is the UK against biological threats?
Reporter : Gerry Northam
Producer : Nicola Dowling
Editor : David Ross.