21 JUNE 1975, Page 26


The superbugs

Bernard Dixon

A couple of Fridays —ago, ICI announced the completion of a new, high security laboratory at Runcorn, Cheshire, where novel microbes will be fabricated for use in industrial process. "Genetic engineering" techniques will be exploited to manipulate the hereditary material in bacteria, for example, and thus create `superbugs' that have never existed before on earth. Their uses will range from the refining of low grade ores to the manufacture of hormones such as insulin.

Apart from its instrinsic interest, the announcement was significant in coming the very day after publication of a document compiled by a distinguished international panel of scientists urging "considerable caution" in research of this sort. The document was produced by the organisers of the conference held at Pacific Grove, California, in February (The Spectator, March 29) to consider a possible moratorium on work which could, as well as yielding "superbugs" of considerable value, generate pathogenic strains more virulent than any known.

At first sight, then, ICI's news is not a little disturbing. For genetic engineering to have become an industrial reality at a time when many academic scientists are still deeply concerned about its potential dangers makes for an uneasy situation — to say the least.

There are three main .problems. First, there are the physical safeguards that should surround laboratory work on all dangerous microbes, whether man-made or evolved naturally. Two recent events have focused attention on the importance of these; the escape of smallpox virus from a laboratory at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine two years ago (with lethal consequences), and the emergence of the deadly Lassa fever — which has killed not only people at its source in Africa but also technical personnel studying the virus in the laboratory.

A new and acute awareness of the public health dangers posed by such incidents has led to several measures. Only last month, at Porton Down, Wiltshire, a new laboratory suite was opened in which inordinately virulent viruses like that of Lassa fever can be investigated. Since then a working party under Sir George Godber has published a report which recommends that laboratory work on dangerous micro-organisms should be kept under continuous review, and that the number of centres dealing with such microbes should he strictly limited.

There is, of course, no reason to believe that ICI have been other' than scrupulous in the design of their new Runcorn lab. There are considerable precautions to prevent the leak of toxic material, and access to the lab can be gained' only by keying in a code number on a series of buttons controlling the lock in an armour plated door.

Much more challenging are the biological, rather than physical, safeguards that can be built into work and of the type ICI is contemplating. It is theoretically possible, for example, to work with special strains of bacteria which, even if they did escape the confines of a high security building, could not survive in the human body. One way of doing so would be to use as the basic stock for breeding "super bugs" only microbes which cannot tolerate body temperature. As well as stating that certain experiments are so risky that they should not be performed at all, the recent report following the Pacific Grove meeting urges the speedy development of 'safe vectors' of this type, Which brings us to the most disquieting problem of all: what rules or regulations are there which ensure that ICI (or any other group for that matter) does indeed work within such prudent internationally debated guidelines? The answer is: almost none. The Godber panel, however, did advise both immediate voluntary control, supervised by a Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group, and then a statutory system of regulation. It is devoutly to be hoped that the government understands the urgent need for action along those lines.

Dr Bernard Dixon, who contributes fortnightly to The Spectator, is editor of New Scientist