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Will Polio’s Threat Always Linger?

Since scientists recreated the poliovirus from scratch in 2002, some wonder whether the disease can ever be eradicated.

By Wendy Orent // Spring 2006
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In 2002, using only a gene synthesizer, a chemical bath to turn DNA sequences into RNA, and a genetic sequence that had long been available on the Internet, Eckard Wimmer and a team of researchers at the State University of New York in Stony Brook recreated polio from scratch. “It took us less than two years,” says Wimmer. “Soon, with current technological advances,” he adds, with only slight exaggeration, “it will take two weeks and a few dollars.”

Although some scientists denounced the exercise as a stunt, Wimmer had a serious purpose—to show that the world will never be truly free from polio. The virus could re-emerge as a bioterrorist threat.

Polio eradication has been modeled upon the campaign against smallpox, which resulted in the worldwide cessation of smallpox vaccination. But illicit stores of that virus may still exist. According to Harvard virologist James Hogle, polio would be less suitable than smallpox as a bioterrorist weapon because of polio’s comparatively low death rate. Yet the relative ease of re-creating poliovirus could make it an ideal agent for maximizing fear and disruption. Polio virologist Vincent Racaniello at Columbia University has estimated that releasing poliovirus into the water supply of a city with an unvaccinated population of 10 million could produce 7,000 cases of paralytic polio. To eliminate such a threat, it may be necessary to continue polio vaccination even after the disease is officially eradicated.

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Still a Scourge

Polio sufferers

After crippling millions worldwide, polio may soon be wiped out. But to the last, the virus is proving an elusive, stubborn foe.

In the Time of Polio

From an ancient Egyptian stone carving to eradication in one hemisphere, polio has a long history.

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