Comments on Mail Ordering Smallpox Genes

I've been debating whether to respond to James Randerson's recent front page story in The Guardian, "Revealed: the lax laws that could allow assembly of deadly virus DNA", about mail ordering genes for smallpox.  The bottom line is that the story as published is neither well-reported nor a particularly useful contribution to the discussion about emerging biological threats.

Years ago, I was fortunate to take a science writing class from the great science and war correspondent Malcom Browne, who for many years provided exceptional science reporting at The New York Times.  Among his  suggestions for an ideal (!) newspaper story is that it be no longer than a Haiku.  Of course, this makes all articles published in the history of the press less than ideal.  (No news there.)  Here is my version of the Guardian article:

Humans play with fire!
Newspaper sales are lagging!
Set our hair alight!

Alas, I've ignored most of the stylistic requirements for a Haiku (no mention of a season, or of nature), and the exclamation points are unforgivable.  Still, it captures the essence of Mr. Randerson's story.

Although the article does make one, albeit brief, nod to, "Legitimate reasons for researchers to buy lengths of DNA from pathogens, for example in developing treatments or vaccines against them," the majority of the text is simply alarmist and a rehash of arguments that have appeared previously (The New York Times, Wired, Technology Review; the list goes on).

The worst bit, from my perspective, is that Mr. Randerson promulgates the facetious notion that producing a live, infectious 1918 pandemic influenza virus is as easy as ordering out the DNA from a gullible company.  I've written about this before, and refer readers to those posts (here, and here).  This isn't quibbling on my part.  The capabilities of the technology are central to evaluating the immediacy of the threat.

The Guardian article spends many inches (not an Internet concept, those newsprint inches) announcing the need for regulation without even mentioning the potential detrimental effects of limiting access to the technology.  Because the threat is not immenent, instituting regulations would certainly only reduce our capacity to learn who is employing the technology and thus reduce our capacity to respond to any threats that do arise.  Again, arguments I have made extensively elsewhere (in Wired, at Future Brief, and in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism (via, for example).

The short version of why regulation is bad is this: Because it is not physically possible to control access to the reagents or instrumentation used in DNA synthesis, our only defense in this situation is to keep track of, as best we can, who is doing what.  Our sole weapon is information, in other words.  The only thing regulation will do is cause people to be more secretive, whether they have a nefarious or an innocuous intent.  That is, regulation will restrict our ("we" being the good guys, of course) access to information.  Moreover, regulation in the U.K. and/or the U.S. will only limit activity in those countries.  You can order synthetic genes from a large number of convenient countries, these days.

In a companion article, "Lax laws, virus DNA and potential for terror", Mr. Randerson introduces his readers to Synthetic Biology:

Edward Hammond, a biological weapons expert with the Sunshine Project, an NGO that campaigns against the development of biological weapons, said: "The most worrisome thing ... is that [the field of synthetic biology] is going to enable people to create potentially very dangerous diseases that don't otherwise exist or to recreate ones that have been wiped off the face of the earth."

Mr. Randerson makes no effort to explain that you don't need synthetic methods to create new, potentially dangerous organisms.  (Harder to sell newspapers if you don't stoke the fires, after all.)  Breeding and artificial selection can produce pathogens for you, and these tried and true techniques will do a much better job of it.  And if you want a nasty bug ready-made, you just need to visit a poultry farm here in the US, where due to all those fantastic "growth hormones" a soil sample will provide you with Cipro-resistant anthrax. 

I was perplexed through the entire article why no mention was made of Drew Endy's efforts to synthesize novel viruses for the sake of learning how they work.  In other correspondence with Drew, I learned that he had been approached by Mr. Randerson, but was so troubled by the very idea of the article and project that he declined to participate or be interviewed.  Here (PDF warning) is a log of their email exchange.

The most remarkable thing about the email is that it demonstrates Mr. Randerson is hell bent on doing exactly what he warns against, namely letting loose in the world a sequence from a deadly pathogen that has been extinct in the wild for quite some time.  It doesn't matter that he introduced three small changes rendering the gene supposedly incapable of being used to produce a protein.  Those changes would be trivial for any college, and perhaps high school, student to remove (laborious, perhaps, but trivial), thus restoring the functionality of the smallpox gene.

By my reading, Randerson's correspondence with Drew clearly shows The Guardian reporter hasn't thought about the bigger context.  He had his teeth into a story and wedged himself into discussing only his own ill-informed conclusions rather than carefully exploring what it will take to keep us safe from emerging threats.  He simply didn't do his homework.

I hope The Guardian can do better in the future.