In 1918, a huge catastrophe culminated in the loss of 50 million lives. No, I’m not referring to World War One, I’m talking about the Spanish influenza pandemic, which claimed more lives in one year than the war did in four. The flu isn’t usually fatal to anyone besides babies and the elderly, but in 1918 two pre-existing strains spontaneously combined into a virulent variant for which most people had no immunological defenses. Millions of people in the prime of their lives died.
Today, we don’t need to wait for nature to create such mutations. Recombinant DNA technology has enabled scientists all over the world to manipulate genes in order to devise novel life forms — including new viruses. According to the September 3 issue of the British science magazine Nature, 50 companies in the rapidly growing gene-synthesis business annually fill 50,000 orders for genes. That raises unique security concerns, because some of the customers could be terrorists or other malcontents trying to engineer biological weapons of mass destruction. Imagine, for example, splicing genes to combine the symptoms of smallpox with the transmissibility of ebola.
The danger is obvious enough, but a debate has broken out in the industry about how to screen buyers. According to Nature, some companies want to automate the vetting process so that computers compare orders with pathogen lists maintained by the Center for Disease Control, without any additional steps. Other companies insist that automated reviews must be supplemented by human experts, who can detect suspicious aspects of orders not apparent in automated vetting. The government needs to set some standards fast, because technology is now so advanced that seemingly innocuous genes can be combined to create very destructive organisms. This is one business where market forces definitely need to be regulated.
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