"Smallpox Law Needs Fix"

ScienceNOW Daily News is carrying a short piece on the recommendation by the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) to repeal a law that criminalizes synthesis of genomes 85% similar to smallpox.

The original law, which surprised everyone I have ever talked to about this topic, was passed in late 2004 and wasn't written about by the scientific press until March of '05:

The new provision, part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that President George W. Bush signed into law on 17 December 2004, had gone unnoticed even by many bioweapons experts. "It's a fascinating development," says smallpox expert Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C.

...Virologists zooming in on the bill's small print, meanwhile, cannot agree on what exactly it outlaws. The text defines variola as "a virus that can cause human smallpox or any derivative of the variola major virus that contains more than 85 percent of the gene sequence" of variola major or minor, the two types of smallpox virus. Many poxviruses, including a vaccine strain called vaccinia, have genomes more than 85% identical to variola major, notes Peter Jahrling, who worked with variola at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland; an overzealous interpretation "would put a lot of poxvirologists in jail," he says.

According to the news report at ScienceNOW:

Stanford biologist David Relman, who heads NSABB's working group on synthetic genomics, told the board that "the language of the [amendment] allows for multiple interpretations of what is actually covered" and that the 85% sequence stipulation is "arbitrary." Therefore, he said, "we recommend repealing" the amendment.

Relman's group also recommended that the government revamp its select agents list in light of advances in synthetic genomics. These advances make it possible to engineer biological agents that are functionally lethal but genomically different from pathogens on the list. The group's recommendations, which were approved unanimously by the board, are among several that the board will pass on to the U.S. government to help develop policies for the conduct and oversight of biological research that could potentially be misused by terrorists.