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Network of concern

Only biologists can effectively police the misuse of biological agents.

The array of techniques and compounds that have the potential to be used in bioterror attacks is growing apace, and reaches far beyond a small number of obviously dangerous agents, such as anthrax spores.

At present, the threat is policed mainly by a handful of people in the military and at spy agencies. Interest in the issue has, since the attacks of 11 September 2001, been most acute in the United States. But bioterrorism is a global threat and, ultimately, it is only vigilance by a much larger network of working biologists that can provide some reassurance in the face of it.

That is the central message of a report released on 31 January by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM). The document, Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences, makes a convincing argument that much greater cooperation between scientists around the world will be needed to counter bioterrorism. To this end, it calls on scientists to create a global, grassroots network to discuss and monitor research that might be misused to kill and maim.

Scientists tend instinctively to favour independence and creativity — and to oppose monitoring and regulation. But there are circumstances in which it falls on the community to support precautionary vigilance over unbridled freedom of action.

The IOM panel, co-chaired by Stanley Lemon of the University of Texas at Galveston, envisages a global biosecurity network not dissimilar to ProMED-mail, a web- and e-mail-based network that helps public-health specialists worldwide share information.

Such a network would enable scientists to exchange views on questions, such as when the risks associated with a particular experiment outweigh its potential benefits. It is extremely difficult to make such calls, as was demonstrated most recently by last year's debate over a paper that modelled a toxin attack on the US milk supply (see Nature 435, 855; 200510.1038/435855b). The Lemon report points out that a grassroots network of scientists interested in bioterrorism issues would at least get a broader section of the community talking and thinking about such issues.

The report also emphasizes the fact that the scope of the bioweapons threat is far wider than commonly imagined. We are entering an era in which scientists will be able to design and build organisms for purposes of their choice, for good or ill. The IOM rightly advises US policy-makers to broaden their consideration of biodefence beyond the 50-or-so ‘select agents’ that the US health department has concentrated on until now. That will involve greater consultation with researchers who operate in areas ranging from genetics to nanotechnology, and who do not consider themselves to be involved in biodefence work.

Finally, the IOM calls for more input of up-to-date scientific advice at the US national security agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, who are charged with looking out for bioterror-related activity. The work of these agencies is classified, and the report calls for the establishment of a scientific advisory board, with appropriate clearances, to help the agencies interpret the data they collect. This idea was also proposed last March by a commission set up by President George Bush to look at the spy agencies' capabilities in countering weapons of mass destruction. It should be implemented as soon as is practicable.

The containment of potentially dangerous biological knowledge is a formidable challenge — intrinsically even tougher than block-ing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But it is not one that the scientific community can wish away. The IOM panel has performed a valuable service by highlighting some ways in which biologists can step up to it.

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Network of concern. Nature 439, 633–634 (2006).

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