WASHINGTON — The value of freely sharing data on dangerous germs so vaccines and treatments can be developed outweighs the danger that bioterrorists may use the information to do harm, a scientific panel concluded Thursday.
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Scientists and policy-makers have struggled to balance the needs of researchers for all available information with worries their work might somehow be turned against the public. That concern has increased since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But times have changed since the World War II secrecy dictum that “loose lips sink ships.” Thus, a committee convened by the National Research Council concluded that allowing scientists and the public full access to genome data on germs should continue.
“I think we all felt that ultimately, national security needs are best served by facilitating downstream work to develop new diagnostics, new detection devices, new vaccines, new antimicrobial and antiviral compounds, and we just didn’t see any way to do that other than continuing with the current open access,” said one committee member, Claire M. Fraser.
The committee chairman, Stanley Falkow, said “open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm.” Falkow is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disagreed with the findings, saying that he does not think making such information openly available is a good idea.
“I want to take a look at the report. But from my point of view laying out recipes for the creation of systems or weapons of mass effect, I’m not sure the restriction on that is necessarily the infringement of free speech,” Ridge said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
The committee did suggest creation of an advisory board to review future research and report on any security implications.
Too difficult to remove data from public domain
Under current law, almost all genome data produced in federally funded research has to be made public.
Some federal agencies had raised concerns that, by using that data on pathogens, terrorists might be able to engineer even deadlier versions of diseases.
Those agencies asked the council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to advise them about whether the material should continue to be made public.
Fraser, president of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., pointed out the information, “for the most part, is already in the public domain and it would probably be difficult, if not impossible, to try and remove.”
The complete genome sequences of more than 100 germs — including those for smallpox, anthrax, and Ebola hemorrhagic fever — are available to the public in Internet-accessible databases. Hundreds more pathogens are expected to be sequenced in the next few years.
Genome sequences describe the genes of each germ and are essentially the biologic programs that drive the germs and viruses.
“There was also a sense that the international scientific community may not be on the same page, and if the U.S. was to implement new guidelines, restrictions, if it wasn’t something that was going to be adopted worldwide, it really would be of limited value,” Fraser said in a telephone interview.
She said that individuals, terrorist groups or countries “interested in doing harm could certainly do that with existing strains or isolates that are available,” without the need to use genomic information to develop new germs.
The 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five people are an example of such a use of currently available pathogens.
Ridge, however, argued that terrorists are sophisticated and can make use of new scientific findings.
“Make no mistake about it,” he said. “If we put it out on the Internet, if we put it out in the newspaper, if we put it out in the nightly news, somebody’s watching, somebody’s recording, and somebody’s reporting it and it ultimately gets back to somebody who may or may not use it. It’s just the world we live in. It’s the globalization of information.”
A council report last year focused on how to reduce the potential for misuse of scientific findings without limiting research. The report recommended improved screening of experiments before they are conducted. Also suggested was educating scientists to be aware of the risks and benefits associated with their research.
The new report was prepared at the request of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Homeland Security Department and the CIA.
The academy is a private institution that provides scientific advice under a congressional charter.
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