Aldhous, Peter. "Biologists Urged to Address Risk of Data Aiding Bioweapon Design," Nature
414 (15 November 2001), pp. 237-238.
Biologists must begin a process of self-regulation for projects that have potential applications in
developing bioweapons - or risk the imposition of restrictive controls from outside. That is the
sobering message being delivered by a senior scientific adviser to the U.S. defence department.
George Poste, who chairs a Department of Defense task force on bioterrorism and sits onits
adviswory Defense Science Board, told a pharmaceuticals-industry conference in London on 6
November that biology must "lose its innocence." He criticized biologists for what he regards as
their naivety in failing to consider malign applications of data generated in legitimate projects,
and urged them to start considering how access to such data could best be regulated.
"What I think is untenable is the status quo - just allowing highly sensitive information to enter
the public domain," says Poste, a former head of research at the drugs company SmithKline
Beecham. "Equally dangerous would be a draconian legislative response."
With the United States reeling in the fact of anthrax attacks against media outlets and politicians,
Poste fears that unduly restrictive legislation could be hurried through. He points to a bill that is
now before Congress that would impose sweeping restrictions on non-US citizens handling
potential bioweapons agents, which has already caused alarm among biologist (see Nature 414,
In an interview with Nature, Poste expanded upon his concerns. He is particularly worried about
projects in which viruses are engineered to evade or manipulate the immune system. For
instance, earlier this year Australian researchers revealed that they had inadvertently created a
super-virulent strain of mousepox in a project aimed at creating a contraceptive vaccine (see
Nature 411, 232-235, 2001). And gene therapists, grappling with the problems caused by
immune reactions to the viral vectors they use to introduce therapeutic genes, are now designing
‘stealth' vectors that would escape the attention of the immune system.
Such technolog9ies could be applied to viral bioweapons with devastating effects, argues Poste.
Yet he has been disappointed by the reactions of some researchers working on such projects
when this possibility is raised: "They look at you first of all with a blank state, followed by an
arrogant denial," he says.
Poste believes that a larger number of projects addressing the issue of biodefence may in future
have to be classified. More generally, he suggests that researchers submitting grant proposals to
bodies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) might have to declare whether they have
considered potential malign applications. For projects deemed to be particularly risky,
manuscripts might even be better, he says, with the possibility that permission to publish could
Poste also suggests that anyone wishing to access genomic sequence data for dangerous
pathogens might be required to provide evidence of their accreditation with a legitimate lab - a
stipulation already applied by suppliers of microbial cultures.
But Poste stresses that wider debate among biologists is needed to develop an appropriate
framework for self-regulation. "These are not formal proposals," he says.
Poste's suggests are highly controversial, given that the freedom to publish and to share data is
central to the culture of modern bioscience. "We consider openness in publication as sacrosanct
in our work," says Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. "I think that's something that we are going to have to be very
careful about treading on."
Fauci is similarly sceptical about proposals to restrict access to genome-sequence databases. "I'm
not sure how much safer the public would be" as a result of such controls, he says.
Gene therapists, who are already sunject to stringent controls, view any suggestion of additional
regulation with horror. "I spent 90% of my time dealing with regulation authorities,: says
Malcolm Brenner of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, president of the American
Society of Gene Therapy. "Any further regulation will be the kiss of death."
Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the
Federation of American Scientists' working group on bioweapons, is alarmed by Poste's
suggestion of classifying a greater proportion of work on defence against bioweapons. He argues
that this could allow states to hide offensive bioweapons programmes under the guise of
classified biodefence project- or at least to create suspicions that they are doing so.
On the basis of his conversations with members of Congress, Fauci says he is confident that
legislators will not impose draconian restrictions. But both he and Wheelis agree that biologists
must become more aware of potential destructive applications of their work. They urge scientific
societies to take a lead in promoting debate.
Fauci says the NIH could play a part by hosting discussion meetings, and believes that
heightened awareness could lead to biologists deciding not to go ahead with certain projects.