Note: Congressional hearings on the US Ebola efforts are going on right now with representatives from CDC, NIH, BARDA, FDA and others. You can watch it here. If anyone wants a live blog, let me know. I invite other geeky types to watch and summarize, especially those of us with knowledge of the drug discovery/biotech area.
No, it’s not me. I admit to being clueless sometimes but not when it comes to the distribution of information.
I’m talking about Leonard Adleman who wrote an Op/Ed in the NYTimes about how easy it would be to revive smallpox. The reason it would be theoretically easy is because the sequence for the smallpox virus is available online. So, some really clever evil genius with a garage lab could potentially order up a copy of the gene from one of the synthetic gene specialists in South San Francisco and piece the sucker together using, oh, I don’t know, a variola, vaccinia or orthopox virus just hanging around. It sounds complicated and might take some time, and if the independent researcher was born in the 80’s, there’s a good chance he’ll die of the disease if he’s not careful. But it is possible.
Personally, I’m more concerned about reviving the 1918 influenza strain and getting it to go airborne, which, if I recall correctly, was successfully done a few years ago in Europe. From what I remember, the researchers on that team suppressed the sequence. Funny, I can’t seem to google that info. Hmmm…
But getting back to Adleman, he’s not so keen on us just publishing the sequences on public databases. Maybe it would be better if we just restricted access and only let the professionals see them. That’s just nuts for a couple of reasons. The first is that through the years, I have noticed that the sciences are full of people with psychopathic tendencies. Fortunately, most of them get promoted out of the lab into management. But just because they might be working at a prestigious lab with unrestricted access to information doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. After all, we still don’t know who did the anthrax attacks and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a garage biologist.
The second reason is, referring to smallpox especially, we have a vaccine for that. Oh sure, there will be plenty of thirty year olds who may be at risk but an outbreak would be limited.
And for the people who have extraordinary skill in making lethal viruses, I have a perfect solution: HIRE THEM! Jeez, why in god’s name would you lay off hundreds of thousands of talented people and have them stew over the MBAs and shareholders who wrecked their careers?? Especially when there are auction sites where they can buy discounted equipment from mothballed labs?
I can’t see a teenager doing this, although we do have a lot of malicious computer viruses so who knows. But they would have to be trained. Just getting the sequence is not enough. It’s not like writing code and you can’t get all your information from a book. Maybe grad students would be capable if they’re motivated, so you tyrannical PIs out there should be on your guard. But cooking up stuff in a lab takes practice and some good mentors to teach you how to do it.
In other words, it is possible that some well funded hostile country could fund this kind of work by sending some grad students to study in Dr. Adleman’s lab, for example. He and his students would always have access to sequence data. But smallpox is not a threat and the other diseases are not so easily made.
But the best reason for not restricting access is that it once again takes out of the public domain millions of sequences for genes and proteins that the independent benevolent researcher has access to. I think it’s great that the US publishes to the NIH PubMed and the European Mol Bio Organization provides this information for free to anyone who wants it. Without sequence information, and the tools to process it, small, entrepreneurial companies would not have access to it without paying a fee. That fee, like the high costs of accessing journal articles, could be a substantial barrier to admission to new businesses and new cures for diseases.
Think of it this way, without the information from sequence databases, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, the company that discovered ZMapp, might never have gotten off the ground.
It’s unlikely that I’m going to produce an ebola protein in the lab but I’m glad that someone published the sequence data so that another lab could make them, crystallize them and publish 47 different protein crystal structures to the web for anyone to access, including a former drug designer in Pittsburgh. That means a lot to me. And maybe some crazy kid out there who likes looking at these things and enjoys protein folds and modeling as much as I do will be inspired to find a cure for ebola and other diseases.
What worries me is that the fear that Adleman is producing will lead to those sequences being locked away forever so that only the rich and well connected have access to them. It would be the equivalent of the Patriot Act. We wouldn’t know what we had lost until the new Dark Ages descended on science. Do we really want to leave this information in the hands of only those who can afford to access it?