Biotechnology research and bioterrorism

RobertBradbury writes "This week Nature is highlighting the problem of public knowledge and data access and bioterrorism in "The end of innocence?". George Poste, chair of the U.S. Dept. of Defense task force on bioterrorism, goes so far in "Biologists urged to address risk of data aiding bioweapon design" as to suggest access to biological data should be regulated and the publication of manuscripts associated with "risky" projects might be denied. This isn't a new discussion, Nature pointed out on May 17, in "A call to arms" the problem of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies resisting the inspections that would put some teeth into the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention treaty. The firms fear inspections because of the potential theft of commercial secrets while the proponents object that the 2 week advance notice would allow too much time to hide any covert activities.

Some biologists, such as Claire Fraser, the Director of TIGR, realize the problem is serious and in an October Nature Genetics article, Genomics and future biological weapons: the need for preventive action by the biomedical community, concluded, "In short, the biomedical community must play its proper part in the generation of a true web of deterrence that will render biological warfare or terrorism an obviously futile as well as a morally unacceptable act".

The threat of bioterrorism is here now (see this CNN Report), long before we have to worry about nanoterrorism. Is secrecy the answer? Can inspections work? What about countries that fail to sign the treaties? Or is our only hope to develop robust defenses (vaccines, anti-toxins, rapid response capabilities, etc.) that would allow us to keep one step ahead in the bioterrorist arms race?"

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