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Scientists warn that genetically modified insect virus could be bioweapon

In a new Science Policy Forum report, scientists have sounded the alarm on genetically modified viruses that would be dispersed into the environment using insects.

Published: October 13, 2018, 8:15 am

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    In a programme run by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), this new class of bioweapons could prompt other nations to seek similar weapons, they cautioned.

    Dubbed the “Insect Allies” program, DARPA began modifying insects in 2017, allegedly to help produce more resilient crops in the face of climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and disease, Gizmodo reported.

    Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg in Germany, as well as the University of Montpellier in France suggest DARPA’s program could likely breach the Biological Weapons Convention.

    The Convention is the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning such development, production, and stockpiling.

    Richard Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, believes this is an example of dual-use research which is not only helping farmers, but also the arms race.

    When contacted by Gizmodo, DARPA denied the accusations made in the new report.

    The technology at the center of the programme is a process known as horizontal genetic alteration. Hence the name — Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA).

    Farmers would send swarms of genetically modified insects into their crops to infect plants with a virus that passes along new resilience genes, essentially a virus which is inserted into the chromosome of a target organism.

    Using CRISPR, or a variant of a gene-editing system, this virus is carried into crops. Each plant would then be infected by the insect, triggering the intended effects.

    Insect Allies is reportedly backed by $27 million of funding with four academic research teams currently working on the project.

    By 2020 or 2021, DARPA will be testing the virus-infected insects on crops at undisclosed locations in controlled spaces. But according to Reeves insects cannot be controlled and there is currently no global regulatory framework to support this new way of transporting HEGAAs to crops.

    The scientists believe HEGAAs will actually be used “for offensive purposes” in conducting biological warfare. If these insects are implanted with a dangerous plant-killing disease, it could destroy the food supply of a target country as would weapons of mass destruction.

    “DARPA is not producing biological weapons, and we reject the hypothetical scenario,” a DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies told Gizmodo. But the DARPA manager could give no good reason why crop spraying could not continue as before since it has been up to now quite effective in controlling plant diseases.

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