Insects as bio-weapons?


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This 2013 photo provided by the Boyce Thompson Institute shows corn leaf aphids used in a study to modify crop plants through engineered viruses. In an opinion paper published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in the journal Science, the authors say the U.S. needs to provide greater justification for the peace-time purpose of its Insect Allies project to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries. Other experts expressed ethical and security concerns with the research, which seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field. (Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute via AP)

This 2013 photo provided by the Boyce Thompson Institute shows corn leaf aphids used in a study to modify crop plants through engineered viruses. In an opinion paper published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in the journal Science, the authors say the U.S. needs to provide greater justification for the peace-time purpose of its Insect Allies project to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries. Other experts expressed ethical and security concerns with the research, which seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field. (Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute via AP)


Scientists: US military program could be seen as bioweapon

By CANDICE CHOI and SETH BORENSTEIN

Associated Press

Friday, October 5

NEW YORK (AP) — A research arm of the U.S. military is exploring the possibility of deploying insects to make plants more resilient by altering their genes. Some experts say the work may be seen as a potential biological weapon.

In an opinion paper published Thursday in the journal Science, the authors say the U.S. needs to provide greater justification for the peace-time purpose of its Insect Allies project to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries. Other experts expressed ethical and security concerns with the research, which seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field.

That would mark a departure from the current widely used procedure of genetically modifying seeds for crops such as corn and soy, before they grow into plants.

The military research agency says its goal is to protect the nation’s food supply from threats like drought, crop disease and bioterrorism by using insects to infect plants with viruses that protect against such dangers.

“Food security is national security,” said Blake Bextine, who heads the 2-year-old project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The State Department said the project is for peaceful purposes and does not violate the Biological Weapons Convention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said its scientists are part of the research, which is being conducted in contained labs.

The technology could work in different ways. In the first phase, aphids — tiny bugs that feed by sucking sap from plants — infected plants with a virus that temporarily brought about a trait. But researchers are also trying to see if viruses can alter the plant’s genes themselves to be resistant to dangers throughout the plant’s life.

Still, the research is raising concerns.

“They’re talking about massive release of genetic modification by means of insects,” said Gregory Kaebnick, an ethicist at the Hastings Center bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y., who has studied genetic modification. He wasn’t part of the Science paper but said Insect Allies technology could end up being destructive.

Kaebnick questioned how well the viruses and insects carrying them could be controlled. “When you are talking about very small things — insects and microbes — it might be impossible to remove them” once they are introduced into farmers’ fields, he said.

Dr. David Relman, a professor of medicine and microbiology at Stanford who has advised the Obama administration on bio-defense but is not part of the DARPA research, said the project could play into longstanding fears among countries that enemies might try to harm their crops.

Still, Relman said the technology could potentially help farmers fight a “bad plant virus moving across the plains” or protect crops from bioterrorism. Since insects often spread crop diseases, Relman said DARPA is trying to use the bugs’ own biology to “recruit them as allies” in spreading protective traits.

Though it’s not a household name, DARPA helped develop the Internet and its mission is to research potentially pivotal new technologies. The agency announced the Insect Allies project in 2016.

Guy Reeves, a co-author of the Science paper and a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, says the technology is more feasible as a weapon — to kill plants — than as an agricultural tool. As a result, he said DARPA could be sending an alarming message regardless of its intentions.

“It’s really about how it’s perceived,” he said.

The papers’ European authors say the mere announcement of the program may have motivated other countries to develop their own capabilities in the arena. They say the project also underscores the need for greater discussion of the regulatory and ethical concerns of such developing technologies.

Todd Kuiken, a senior research scholar at North Carolina State University, said he doesn’t think the military intends to attack another country with insects. But he said it looks bad that DARPA is funding the project.

“The pure fact that this is a military program would naturally raise these sorts of questions,” said Kuiken, who last year raised concerns similar to those published in Science.

Tom Inglesby, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins, said the technology is being developed specifically to protect crops. But he acknowledged it could be misused.

Concerns that a new technology could be weaponized are to be expected, even if that’s not the intention, said Paul Thompson, a professor of agriculture and ethics at Michigan State University who is on an advisory board for DARPA.

“Once you make those kinds of breakthroughs, you are in a new world. It’s a morally ambiguous place. You wonder, ‘Is this something that we should never do?’” he said.

Some experts have questioned whether the project’s ambitious goals are even achievable.

North Carolina State University entomologist Fred Gould, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on genetically modified food and is not part of the DARPA research, said too many biological interactions would need to be perfectly manipulated, so the chance of it working is “pretty close to zero.”

It may not ever work, but Relman said that’s DARPA’s role: Exploring the “bleeding edge of challenging work” to anticipate future threats.

Borenstein reported from Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Therapy dogs can spread superbugs to kids, hospital finds

By MIKE STOBBE

AP Medical Writer

Saturday, October 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Therapy dogs can bring more than joy and comfort to hospitalized kids. They can also bring stubborn germs.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore were suspicious that the dogs might pose an infection risk to patients with weakened immune systems. So they conducted some tests when Pippi, Poppy, Badger and Winnie visited 45 children getting cancer treatment.

They discovered that kids who spent more time with the dogs had a 6 times greater chance of coming away with superbug bacteria than kids who spent less time with the animals. But the study also found that washing the dogs before visits and using special wipes while they’re in the hospital took away the risk of spreading that bacteria.

The results of the unpublished study were released Friday at a scientific meeting in San Francisco.

One U.S. health official said the findings add to the growing understanding that while interactions with pets and therapy animals can be beneficial, they can also carry risk.

“Whether covered in fur, feathers or scales, animals have the potential to carry germs that make people sick,” said Casey Barton Behravesh of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pet therapy can help people recover from a range of health problems. Past studies have shown dogs or other animals can ease anxiety and sadness, lower blood pressure and even reduce the amount of medications some patients need.

But there have been episodes of the superbug MRSA riding around on healthy-looking therapy dogs.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, often live on the skin without causing symptoms. But they can become more dangerous if they enter the bloodstream, destroying heart valves or causing other damage. Health officials have tied MRSA to as many as 11,000 U.S. deaths a year.

The bacteria can spread in daycares, locker rooms and military barracks, but public health efforts have focused on hospitals and nursing homes.

The Baltimore study looked at 45 children who interacted with the four dogs — petting, hugging, feeding or playing with them — over 13 visits in 2016 and 2017.

Among kids who had no MRSA, the researchers found the superbug on about 10 percent of the samples taken from those kids after the dog visits. They also found MRSA on nearly 40 percent of the samples from the dogs. The researchers also determined that the more time someone spent with the animals, the greater the chance of ending up with the bacteria.

The researchers think the dogs were generally clean of MRSA when they first came to the hospital, but picked it up from patients or others while they were there, said one of the authors, Meghan Davis.

“Our hypothesis is it’s really person-to-person transmission, but it happened through contact with the fur,” said Davis, a Johns Hopkins public health researcher and veterinarian.

Under hospital protocols, therapy dogs must be bathed within a day of a visit and are checked for wounds or other health problems. Children who see them are supposed to use hand sanitizer “but that wasn’t strictly enforced,” said Kathryn Dalton, another one of the researchers.

Later in the study, the researchers asked the dogs’ owners to bathe the animals with a special shampoo before the visits. They also had the dogs patted down every five to 10 minutes with disinfecting wipes at the hospital.

Those steps dramatically decreased the bacteria level on the dogs, Dalton said.

She hopes further study will show that such cleanings can reduce any risk of superbug infection.

“I really had the opportunity to see how important these dogs were to the patients,” Dalton said. After the sessions with the dogs, the kids “would say how much this made their day.”

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Facebook wants people to invite its cameras into their homes

By MICHAEL LIEDTKE and BARBARA ORTUTAY

AP Technology Writers

Monday, October 8

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Facebook is launching the first electronic device to bear its brand, a screen and camera-equipped gadget intended to make video calls easier and more intuitive.

But it’s unclear if people will open their homes to an internet-connected camera sold by a company with a questionable track record on protecting user privacy.

Facebook is marketing the device, called Portal, as a way for its more than 2 billion users to chat with one another without having to fuss with positioning and other controls. The device features a camera that uses artificial intelligence to automatically pan and zoom as people move around during calls.

Since Echo’s release nearly four years ago, both Google and Apple have followed Amazon in releasing smart speakers designed for use with their other digital services — some of them, at least. These speakers can serve as hub-like controllers for “smart” homes as people install appliances, lighting and security systems that can be controlled over the internet.

Portal represents Facebook’s entry into that fray. But pointing an artificially intelligent camera into peoples’ homes could well raise other privacy questions.

“The first thing consumers are going to wonder is ‘how much sensitive data is this collecting about me?’” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy of telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group that has received donations from Facebook and other tech companies.

Earlier this year, Facebook had to acknowledge that as many as 87 million people may have had their data accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a data mining firm that worked for the Trump campaign and aimed to use the data to influence elections. More recently, Facebook revealed that hackers managed to pierce its security to break into 50 million accounts .

Facebook says it won’t store Portal video on its data centers. The device will allow users to disable the camera and microphone with a single tap and to lock it with a numerical passcode. Facebook also says it won’t store any of the video sent through the camera on the computers in its data centers. There’s also a physical camera cover to prevent recording.

“This is going to gain (Facebook) not only a place in the smart home, but also data they may not have been able to collect before or understand before,” said ABI Research analyst Jonathan Collins. This includes people’s location, activities and interests — “all the reasons companies want to get into the home.”

Facebook will offer Portal in two sizes — a $199 model with a 10-inch horizontal screen and a $349 “Plus” version with a 15.6-inch screen that can switch between vertical or horizontal orientations.

Both models also include an internet-connected speaker that includes Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant, Alexa. Portal connects calls through Facebook’s Messenger app, meaning that it can connect calls with people who aren’t using Portal.

Ortutay reported from New York.

This 2013 photo provided by the Boyce Thompson Institute shows corn leaf aphids used in a study to modify crop plants through engineered viruses. In an opinion paper published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in the journal Science, the authors say the U.S. needs to provide greater justification for the peace-time purpose of its Insect Allies project to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries. Other experts expressed ethical and security concerns with the research, which seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field. (Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute via AP)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/10/web1_121507847-e517cfea64254b468aba206e771a3902.jpgThis 2013 photo provided by the Boyce Thompson Institute shows corn leaf aphids used in a study to modify crop plants through engineered viruses. In an opinion paper published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in the journal Science, the authors say the U.S. needs to provide greater justification for the peace-time purpose of its Insect Allies project to avoid being perceived as hostile to other countries. Other experts expressed ethical and security concerns with the research, which seeks to transmit protective traits to crops already growing in the field. (Meena Haribal/Boyce Thompson Institute via AP)
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