The warning comes from Lord Martin Rees, who is the Astronomer Royal and a former president of the Royal Society. Speaking at the Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk, Lord Rees said he feared the action of malicious groups, or even individuals. The expert warned such activity could create a pathogen worse than the Covid-19 virus that caused the current pandemic.
He said: “The worst nightmare is an engineered pandemic, where so-called gain-of-function experiments can render a virus more virulent and more transmissible.
“And that’s an example of what really does keep me awake at night.”
Gain-of-function research is carried out across the world to better understand viruses and avoid such pathogens.
But it is a controversial practice due to the high level of risk for accidents.
Lord Rees added: “Our world is becoming more dangerous because small groups, or even fanatical loners, are so empowered by novel technology that they can trigger consequences in the cyber world, as well as in the bio world, that can cascade globally.”
The author of On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, warned that “technology is available in lots of universities and academic labs”.
He added that it would be sufficient for disaffected people” to create deadlier versions of viruses such as influenza and Covid-19.
The 79-year-old said such people may include “eco fanatics” bent on reducing the world’s population.
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There have been suggestions over the last two years that COVID-19 was the result of an accidental lab leak.
Some have even linked it to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
While the origin of Covid has still not been found, most experts agree it was passed on from an animal – to an intermediate host – before jumping to humans.
China has yet to provide the WHO with the evidence to support Beijing’s assertion that the spread of coronavirus had a natural zoonotic pathway.
Beijing has also repeatedly denied any such claims.