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Weapons Control And Bioterrorism Preparedness - ASM
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A Hot Zone - from Red Herring Top 10 Trends 2003
"Publish or perish" is the rule in science. But as Americans shopped
for plastic and duct tape, biologists and scientific journal publishers said
they're concerned about who might be reading their journals.
As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists now plan to police what
Security vs. Censorship
Scientific research—and progress—depends on an international community
of peers reviewing, repeating, testing and advancing upon each other's work.
That is why scientists generally balk at any threat to the openness of their
communications. But this week, publishers and editors of biology journals
promised to police what they publish in the interest of national security.
"Since the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, there has been concern that
some of the information that we produce in science could be misused by terrorists,"
Atlas, president of the American
Society for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes eleven journals.
Atlas, joined by editors of other major journals, including Science,
Nature, and Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), announced the new policy
at a meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this week in Denver.
The journals are also publishing the
group's statement in this week's issues.
“Weâ€™re not interested in publishing dangerous information,"
says Atlas. "If we detect it, weâ€™re going to try to work with authors
and try to modify the manuscript. That failing, we just wonâ€™t publish
The announcement comes after a workshop
held by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington last month, in
which scientists, journal editors and publishers met with national security
officials on the issue.
"What we don't really want to see is government intervention that will
have a chilling impact on science. We're not looking for a national censorship
board," says Atlas. "So the question was asked. So what can we do?
And the answer we've come up with is sort of a self-policing system. A system
based on ethics that says we only want to work for the betterment of humankind,
and not for its harm."
The tipping point
Eckard Wimmer's research was a
case-study at the NAS workshop. Wimmer
and his colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook wrote
a now famous paper, published in the journal Science, reporting they
had created live polio virus from scratch.
When the paper was published in July 2002, Wimmer says, "the reaction
was overwhelming…. Many scientists, and particularly the entire public,
was not prepared that somebody would put a virus together simply by chemical
methods—without actually a template or an original that occurs in nature
in the first place," he says. "All we needed was the information
that you can get out of the Internet."
By January, that alarm had given way to discussion, and Atlas and other attendees
at the NAS workshop agreed that the information was not dangerous and was
correct to publish.
Poliovirus image: James Hogle
"For poliovirus, we're all very well protected in the first place,"
says Wimmer. "For other terrible viruses, evildoers can get those in
nature…. They don't have to go through the rather complicated and expensive
trial that we have done. An exception is smallpox virus that cannot be had
easily, but that virus cannot be synthesized easily either. It is actually
a very complicated virus and the experts agree that to synthesize smallpox
virus right now would really be quite impossible."
"It may have been alarming to the public, but it was scientific knowledge
that really was out there already," says Atlas. "A terrorist would
have known that this could be done. It didn't provide a specific set of instructions.
It wasn't a cookbook.”
In fact, the poliovirus research revealed a way to weaken the virus, which
is important for medical research. It's that balancing act the editors are
committing to. Atlas says that hampering biomedical research would put people
at even greater risk, not only from natural diseases, but also from failing
to develop new vaccines and anti-viral drugs against potential bioterror agents.
In another hotly-debated case study, Australian
researchers engineered mousepox
that was made more deadly by adding a single gene. That research was published
in 2001 in an ASM journal. Atlas says it, too, would still be published under
the new policy.
"It was important information," says Atlas. "Prior to the publication
of that paper, I had been advising the government to put most of their resources
into new vaccines. When I looked at that paper, it told me that we had to
have an equal search for antivirals, and we had to have our states developing
quarantine procedures if all else failed."
So what sort of information would be withheld under the new policy?
While there may not be agreement on what constitutes a "cookbook"
for terrorists, Atlas thinks editors will know one if they see it.
"If I give you specific instructions on how to make an antibiotic-resistant
strain of bacillus anthracis [anthrax]… if it's going to defeat a therapeutic
drug, that could be in that class," says Atlas. "If I tell you how
to 'weaponize' something, if I tell you how to aerosolize it so it spreads
and kills more people, that's dangerous."
The scientists also agree that the only real defense against bioterrorism is
more research. Wimmer welcomed President Bush's announcement in his State
of the Union address of a new initiative called Project
"Our government has put aside large quantities of funds to start a new
round developing antiviral drugs and vaccines, and that's the way to go,"
Wimmer says. "We have to focus on developing drugs and vaccines to protect
ourselves against viruses… which in turn, by the way, will be of great
benefit to all of us."