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Some of these suggestions are quite sensible and unlikely to slow down beneficial research. For example, using software to screen orders for suspect DNA sequences, maintaining a list of customers, and registering DNA synthesizers do not appear to be unduly onerous. Licensing proposals should be rejected. Licensing the purchase of research materials would in effect turn them into controlled substances. And the Feds are already notoriously slow in approving security clearances, so there is no reason to think that they will be any speedier when it comes to approving DNA synthesizer licensees.
A robust biotech research sector that is not hobbled by excessive regulation is our best defense against bioterrorism (and natural pathogens). Instead of being a threat to our safety, rapid progress in biotech will enable us to quickly identify pathogens, either man-made or natural, and create fast and effective treatments for them. The response to the 2003 SARS outbreak in which that virus' genome was decoded in two weeks and vaccines were developed shortly thereafter is a good example of how biotechnological progress can protect us.
Finally, as meritorious as some of preliminary suggestions for
governing biotech research may be, do they really address what
should be our main bioterrorism concerns? The Venter Report
specifically sets aside any consideration of state-sponsored
research. Most nations have ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention
(BWC). However, that treaty has no enforcement and inspection
mechanism. Consequently, at least one BWC signatory, the Soviet
Union, maintained a vast biological weapons
program until its collapse in the 1990s. As for basement
bioterrorism, it is far more likely to emerge some day from a far
off cave in the
wilds of Pakistan than from a California university
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.