In the latest online issue of Nature, there is an article entitled “Keeping genes out of terrorists’ hands“, by Erika Check Hayden. Like an article a little while ago in Nature Biotechnology, it makes the apparently quite reasonable point that
“the way that the industry screens orders for hazardous toxins and genes, such as pieces of deadly viruses and bacteria…could be crucial for global biosecurity”.
Yes. Well. They would say that, wouldn’t they?? “They” being anyone in the developed world who has a paranoid fantasy about bearded extremists in caves (or crew-cut extremists in leafy suburbs) gleefully unwrapping their couriered DNA and brewing up a nice little necrotising poxvirus, or an airborne Ebola, or possibly an H5N1 variant that spreads human-to-human better than the present versions.
I wrote the following reply to the article:
While “all right-thinking people” – for which, read “those easily scared by the unrealistic prospect of mail-order killer bugs” may agree that some kind of limitations are required on what synthetic DNA is sent out, and to whom…there is a baby being thrown out with the bathwater here.
My laboratory has just, despite many previously successful orders from the same company, been denied permission (or told to obtain clearance from the relevant government, which amounts to the same thing) to have a coat protein gene synthesised for a bluetongue virus (BTV) strain now found all over western Europe. Because, apparently, BTV is on the “Australia Group”‘s prohibited list of biological agents – and South Africa is not a signatory to this group, which started out for arms control but has apparently ramified somewhat.
This is so ridiculous as to beggar belief: the viruses are endemic to Africa; the world’s expert on cDNA cloning of their genomes is in South Africa; why would anyone want to build a BTV from synthetic DNA when they could go out and sample a sheep for some REAL virus??
A closer look at the list throws up all sorts of interesting things. It is prohibited, for example, to order genes for H5N1 influenza – although curiously, not pandemic H1N1 – and dengue viruses. This rather puts a spoke in the wheels of anyone who might want to…oh, let’s say…MAKE A VACCINE to those agents, in any country not signatory to the agreement – where the viruses happen to be endemic!!
The ways of limiting spread of genes that are being proposed are first, unnecessary; second – discriminatory in the extreme.
And may just provide a good deal of business for firms operating in developing countries who otherwise would have been ignored because of quality issues. Imagine that: a lab in Pakistan, or South Africa, or Indonesia, using home-made genes to make a vaccine.
Because that is a LOT more likely than using them to make a pathogen.
I know of a passage written some years ago in a reputable science magazine which described how easy it would be to smuggle naturally-occurring foot and mouth disease virus worldwide – with no science involved whatever. I have enough purified material of a particular plant virus in my cold room right now to kill all the wheat grown in my country – given some carborundum and a crop sprayer.
There are enough people on this planet infected with pandemic H1N1 who live in close enough proximity to birds infected with H5N1 to make coinfection of one or the other with both a certainty – the only uncertainty remaining being what will come of it. For that matter, where DID the H1N1 come from? Where did Lujo virus come from?
We DON’T NEED TO MAKE VIRUSES from mail-order DNA – and only Craig Venter et al. could even dream of making whole microbes. There are more than enough nasty agents out there that are relatively easy to obtain, and do simple kitchen-based microbiology with, to keep entire cave complexes and Montana libertarian enclaves busy for years, without resorting to complicated molecular biology.
So DO let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?? And let reputable labs doing reputable work order the materials they need to work with.