Panel Urges Genetic Classification of Lethal Germs

The United States should consider using genetic sequences as a basis for determining whether disease pathogens fall among a number of potential biological-weapon agents subject to tightened regulation, the National Academy of Sciences said in a report published yesterday (see GSN, May 21; National Academy of Sciences release, Aug. 3).

The federal government currently recognizes 82 "select agents" -- pathogens and biological toxins, such as anthrax, declared to pose a severe threat to human or animal health by the Health and Human Services and Agriculture departments (see GSN, July 6). Incorporating genetic details into the classification scheme for such diseases would establish a "brighter line" for distinguishing the most serious biological threats, the report's authors argued.

In addition, the document calls for a "yellow flag" mechanism that would enable sellers of synthesized genetic material to inform relevant agencies when genetic coding is purchased that could be used in engineering a biological weapon, USA Today reported. "That capability exists today or will in the not-too-distant future," said James Leduc, chairman of the panel that prepared the report.

One expert, though, warned of private-sector uncertainty over which genetic sequences pose a threat.

The proposed arrangement would "put the onus on DNA synthesis companies to follow up if someone orders a sequence that might be dangerous," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, an analyst with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.

Gronvall favored the current classification system, which identifies select agents only by name (Steve Sternberg, USA Today, Aug. 3).

August 4, 2010
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The United States should consider using genetic sequences as a basis for determining whether disease pathogens fall among a number of potential biological-weapon agents subject to tightened regulation, the National Academy of Sciences said in a report published yesterday (see GSN, May 21; National Academy of Sciences release, Aug. 3).