Access leads to better science, and better security

By Gigi Kwik Gronvall, November 8, 2007

Point your web browser to the
National Center for Biotechnology
Information (NCBI)
, and you will find a treasure trove of genetic information. No fee or
password is required to copy and paste the genetic code for Ebola Zaire, one of the most lethal
strains of the Ebola virus, or variola, the virus that causes smallpox. According to the NCBI
website, sequences of more than 130 billion base pairs (the building blocks for DNA) were available
in April 2006, and the amount is expanding exponentially over time.

Is this widespread availability of genetic information a problem? It certainly could be. In the
hands of a biologist intending to cause harm, the sequence information available on the internet
could be the first step in bringing back the 1918 flu virus, for example. Alternatively, someone
could make a currently circulating virus, such as Ebola, without getting the virus from a
laboratory or an ongoing outbreak. With a detailed road map, they could construct it using chemical
reagents and widely available technology. DNA synthesis technologies are getting better and faster,
enabling greater swaths of genetic material to be more accurately produced.

Yet, should anything be done about these freely available sequences of potentially dangerous
information? In my opinion, no. There are two main reasons why. Firstly, the information is already
out there, and it is difficult to take something back in the digital age. But this begs the
question, is there any genetic sequence that one can imagine that has not yet been posted that
not be freely accessible?

Secondly, the information is useful. For example, Siga Technologies’s investigational new drug
ST-246 was developed through an examination of the genetic sequences of poxviruses, including
smallpox. The drug inhibits a protein essential for virus assembly, a protein found in multiple
poxviruses but not in humans. This drug was successfully used to treat a boy who had developed
eczema vaccinatum, a rare but serious complication of the smallpox vaccine that causes skin rashes
in people with skin conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis. The boy had been exposed to the
vaccine, which is a live virus, from contact with his father, who had been vaccinated against
smallpox before deployment to Iraq.

Could all of this genetic information be available to those who could use it wisely, without
everyone see? Not likely. It is difficult to imagine how one would decide who is allowed
access, considering that the pursuit of biological sciences (and drugs and vaccines) is global. The
information is needed in both the public and private sectors. If one were to block certain
pathogens from access, it wouldn’t help those who might be interested in developing countermeasures
against them. Blocking access to agents that could be used as weapons would also isolate the
biodefense research community, which would not be good for the quality of the science. Given the
serendipitous nature of biology, blocking sequences could block scientists from understanding the
significance of their work.

The question of whether genetic information for pathogens should be accessible has been
considered by the National Research Council, in their report
“Seeking Security:
Pathogens, Open Access, and Genome Databases.”
They came to the conclusion that the current
open access policy should not change, and that it is not practical or productive to block access.
They recommend–and I strongly agree–that genetic information should be exploited fully to defend
against infectious diseases of all types, whether they occur naturally or are the result of
bioterrorism. Scientists should also be aware that misuse of this information is possible, perhaps
even likely, and that defeating these bugs (and the misuse of them) will only happen through their