This week’s lead editorial in THE LANCET discusses the benefits and potential risks of allowing genomic information to be freely available on the internet - and supports the recent report by the US National Research Council recommending that such information should remain freely accessible to all.
The editorial comments: ‘But while free and open access to these data is a boon to science, it carries some risk: among the genome sequences freely available on the internet are those for more than 100 pathogens, including the organisms that cause anthrax, botulism, smallpox, Ebola haemorrhagic fever, and plague. It is possible that a government, a terrorist organisation, or even an individual could use data from these repositories to create novel pathogens that could be used as weapons.’
‘The current system also offers tremendous benefits. The panel, which was commissioned by US health and security officials, pointed to the recent experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as an example of the power of an open system. In March, 2003, WHO issued a global health alert about an atypical pneumonia in Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Guangdong Province in China. Within 6 weeks, the SARS coronavirus had been isolated and cultured, and its genome sequenced and posted on the internet. These data, freely available to all, allowed scientists around the world to begin studying this virus and its pathogenicity, led to the development of vaccine candidates and diagnostic tests, and helped guide the antiviral drug research. “Unfettered, free access to the results of life-science research . . . has served science and society well”, the panel argues, accelerating research and speeding the “life-saving benefits” of that research’.
The editorial concludes: ‘But beyond the practical, open-access policies of the genome database repositories serve another purpose. One that might, in the long run, be more important. They present the world with a model of international cooperation, trust, and altruism that offers a compelling alternative to the worldview of those who would use bioweapons to impose their political and ideological views.’