Should we kill all viruses on the planet with nanotech?

Could killer-nanites be a cure more dangerous that the disease?

Let me start by saying that I am not a scientist and have superficial, popular science and book knowledge of matters of biotechnology. My latest reading was Neo.Life:25 Visions for the Future of Our Species a collection of 25 essays on how humanity now has the tools and knowledge (the knowledge increases with research) to control the evolution of humans and other life forms, even correcting “design errors” (as if there were a designer or sloppy divine engineer) such as cancer, genetic illnesses, ageing and limited life spans.

Neo.Life is full of interesting visions and speculation, including that we could send a programmable single cell synthetic life organism at near light speed to “colonize” a planet in a distant star system by evolving more sophisticated life forms once it gets there. That was one of the more far-out ideas in the book, along with a kind of guide to what choices one gets with genetically modified embryos — pick one for the kind of kid you want. A tad creepy?

Anyway, this is not a full review of the essay collection, compiled and edited by Jane Metcalfe, who happens to be the partner of my college classmate and co-founder (with Jane) of WIRED, Louis Rossetto, and her co-editor Brian Bergstein. The book is now sold on the website and perhaps elsewhere. That’s .life as a domain, there are other neo life sites that are something else, one, if not several, a peddler of various nostrums. Jane’s site and book is based on science — weird science, perhaps, but science.

Kill them all?

The reality as I write is that the world economy and daily life have been shut down out of concern, if not outright fear of what a kind of quasi-life — the Covid-19 virus, is doing and could do to us. Somewhat inspired by the visions of Metcalfe and Bergstein’s book, I wonder if it would be possible to use the all the biotech tools and computational tools we have to exterminate all viruses linked to human illness on a planetary scale.

What would this take? One way to do it would be to design hunter-killer nano-organisms (nanites?) designed to locate and destroy specific virus strains or disease-linked viruses in general. The nanites could be turned loose in nature, perhaps with a kill-switch against unintended consequences. They should be more nanomachines than “organisms” to prevent any virus strain from developing immunity by interacting with the nanite’s synthetic biology. In other words, no mutation can prevent being “popped” by a kind of nano-lance that is purely “mechanical” at the molecular level and acts on detecting a virus (a kill on detection mechanism).

Image courtesy of Fusion Medical Animation

The nanites could also be decoy human cells, luring in as many viruses as they can fit and then destroying them mechanically or by nano-pulses of radiation or ultraviolet light. Each nanite would destroy many viruses even if the destruction involved damaging itself or exhausting limited power (like emptying a clip of rifle ammunition). However, there would be billions more decoy-cell nanites where that one came from, perhaps in the form of an inhaler (for when Covid-19 jumps to the lungs) or an injection.

Trillions of creepy tiny machines?

The downside of this is the creepiness of having trillions of nano-machines out there capable of (by human error?) of also lancing real living cells rather than the malignant semi-life that viruses are. Could they be hacked? The grey goo scenario, where nanites gone wild turn humans and other organisms into, yes, grey goo is not appealing to say the least.

Another approach, riffing off the crankazoid theory that high-frequency 5G radio waves are triggering Covid-19 infections, could be to use electromagnetic radiation to kill viruses in the soil, atmosphere, and on various surfaces. Can this be done without frying anything else? Yes, in rooms with no people using intense ultraviolet light. Can it or a near frequency radiation be used to penetrate the earth to a certain depth, practically killing all viruses in the irradiated zone. Again, may have to be done with no humans or animals (unless with dark sunglasses) around. On a global scale it gets complicated. Maybe with blimps? Over oceans, which also contain viruses, perhaps easier if one ignores the “sunburned fish” problem.

Perhaps I am totally out on a wacko limb, and we may synthesize an antiviral drug or vaccine, at least to deal with the current breed of corona viruses, long before we can synthesize safe virus killer nanomachines. Finally, there is the issue of whether all viruses are worth exterminating, especially if there is evidence the certain kinds of viruses are vital for plant development and other benign or useful biological processes and biosystems. There is even the version that viruses were precursors or companions to the appearance of cellular life on Earth. That makes them kind of our ur-mother millions of generations ago. Maybe not a good idea to whack all her grand x millions grandchildren?

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.

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