Scientists' principle of openly sharing information is at odds with the political desire to prevent potential bioterrorism, a threat heightened since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. This is especially true in the case of genome data — widely available on the internet — for more than 100 pathogenic organisms. But the exchange of data is key to scientific progress.
This editorial in The Lancet points out that, as the music and film industries have found out to their cost, attempts to restrict unauthorised access drives illegal activity underground. Also, in trying to prevent data from falling into the wrong hands, strict regulations might also stop scientists themselves from accessing data.
A US National Academies of Sciences panel concluded this month that raw sequence data alone would not be enough to create biological weapons and that the current policy of free access should continue. The panel highlighted how such free access was valuable following the March 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Within six weeks of the World Health organization alert about the outbreak, the SARS coronavirus had been isolated and cultured, and its genome sequenced and posted on the Internet.
Reference: The Lancet 364, 1099 (2004)
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