01/24/2008 - 07:00

The best security measure is transparency

Two more thoughts on the issue of expertise: Expertise is important in building a bioweapon, but
there are different types of expertise. As Jens Kuhn says, expertise in weaponization is rare.
Expertise in synthesizing certain viruses is not. In talking about access to expertise we therefore
need to clarify which expertise we mean.

Answering Gigi Kwik Gronvall's first set of questions: Of course, one of a thousand scientists
can be bought, and there is no proof that none of the Russian bioweapons experts has moved to a
country of concern. The point, however, is that it would seem to be a very rare event. Finding the
one scientist among thousands that would be willing and able to work on bioweapons requires time
and resources. This slows bioweapons efforts down and increases the chance of uncovering them
before they are "successful."

The same basic argument is true regarding Gigi's second set of questions. Of course, terrorists
can learn through trial and error and generate the necessary knowledge on their own. But again,
this is time and resource consuming. We can hope to make the path to a bioweapon longer and more
complicated, but it is impossible to ensure 100 percent prevention.

Gigi invited comments on the specific proposals that have been put forward. Before commenting on
those specific proposals, I would like to say something general: What we need is transparency, and
transparency efforts need to focus on the areas of greatest concern. Only then are we likely to
uncover noncompliance. How do you define what activities are of greatest concern? In general, the
more dangerous the agents being researched and the closer the work moves toward weaponization, the
greater our concern should be.

With this basic thought in mind, the three measures Gigi listed are of limited usefullness, at
least if they are not appropriately focused. Jens eloquently described the problems associated with
screening gene sequence orders for dangerous sequences. Such screening could be useful in cases
where a suspicion already exists, or for very specific sequences, such as parts of the smallpox
genome. I agree with Gigi that requiring companies to store their sequence orders would be a
minimal burden, and the data could be left untouched unless an investigation becomes necessary,
i.e. a suspicion requires following up on a sequence order. I could also imagine using data-mining
software to anonymously check sequence orders for suspicious aggregations of dangerous sequences,
though I don't know how much this would add to our knowledge of what is being done with sequence
data and gene sequences. Do the other discussants have thoughts about this?

Regarding the licensing of scientists, I am not sure that I understand the proposal. In Germany,
and I believe all over Europe, scientists working in high or maximum containment facilities receive
extensive safety training. What would licensing add, unless licensing were obligatory on a global
scale?