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Information on Pathogens Should Flow Freely, Report Says

By Kate Ruder

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A panel of scientists has concluded that the public and researchers should continue to have open access to the genome sequences of deadly pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola despite the risk that some might use the information in acts of bioterrorism.

The benefit of having genomic information in the hands of researchers who are developing new drugs and vaccines outweighs the risk that malicious people might use the information to engineer more dangerous pathogens for a terrorist attack, says a report issued yesterday by the National Research Council, part of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

“Open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause us harm,” said Stanley Falkow of Stanford University, California, in a statement. Falkow was chair of the committee of scientists who wrote the report.

Citing concerns that information about pathogens could be dangerous in the wrong hands, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, sponsored the report.

In the report the committee endorses the current policy of free access to genome sequences in online, public databases. The U.S. government now requires scientists who use federal funds to make all data, including genome sequences, publicly available, and the genome sequences of more than 100 microbes that cause disease are currently available through the Internet.

The committee also recommends that both a domestic and international body of scientists be created to review advances in the field of genomics and how they affect security.

The report highlights the worldwide response to the SARS outbreak in 2003 as an example of how open access to science benefits researchers and the larger public. The virus was isolated and the genome sequences were published online so that companies and laboratories could use the information to develop new ways to detect the virus and drugs to treat it.

Restrictions on the free flow of information would likely slow the response to an epidemic, the reports says, noting that monitoring access to genome sequences would be impractical and difficult.

Other members of the committee include David Franz of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, Frederick, Maryland ; Claire Fraser of The Institute for Genomic Research, Rockville, MD ; and Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

The National Research Council, operated by the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, is a private, nonprofit organization that advises on science policy.

To order copies of the report visit The National Academies.

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