WASHINGTON – Restricting access to scientific information about dangerous germs is more likely to hamper legitimate researchers than to prevent terrorists from using the data for attacks, a leading scientist warned.
"If somebody really wants to get the data anyway, they will get it," Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday.
His comments came in support of a new National Research Council (search) report that called for continuing the open access policy for research data, a practice that has raised concerns among scientists and policymakers, particularly since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
"If you restrict the good guys from getting the data, you're more likely going to prevent them from doing the good things than you are going to prevent the bad guys from doing the bad things," Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health (search), said in a telephone interview.
But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) disagreed with the council's findings, saying that he does not think making such information openly available is a good idea.
"I want to take a look at the report. But from my point of view laying out recipes for the creation of systems or weapons of mass effect, I'm not sure the restriction on that is necessarily the infringement of free speech," Ridge said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
Claire M. Fraser, a member of the committee that prepared the report, said the panel felt that "ultimately, national security needs are best served by facilitating downstream work to develop new diagnostics, new detection devices, new vaccines, new antimicrobial and antiviral compounds, and we just didn't see any way to do that other than continuing with the current open access."
The committee did suggest creation of an advisory board to review future research and report on any security implications.
Under current law, almost all genome data produced in federally funded research has to be made public.
Some federal agencies had raised concerns that, by using genome data on pathogens, terrorists might be able to engineer even deadlier versions of diseases. Those agencies asked the council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to advise them about whether the material should continue to be made public.
Fraser, president of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., pointed out the information "for the most part, is already in the public domain and it would probably be difficult, if not impossible, to try and remove."
The complete genome sequences of more than 100 germs — including those for smallpox, anthrax, and Ebola hemorrhagic fever — are available to the public in Internet-accessible databases. Hundreds more pathogens are expected to be sequenced in the next few years.
Genome sequences describe the genes of each germ and are essentially the biologic programs that drive the germs and viruses.
Any new U.S. restrictions would have limited value if they were not adopted worldwide, Fraser said in a telephone interview.
And she said that individuals, terrorist groups or countries "interested in doing harm could certainly do that with existing strains or isolates that are available," without developing new germs. An example is the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five people.
Ridge, however, argued that terrorists are sophisticated and can make use of new scientific findings.
"If we put it out on the Internet, if we put it out in the newspaper, if we put it out in the nightly news, somebody's watching, somebody's recording, and somebody's reporting it and it ultimately gets back to somebody who may or may not use it," he said. "It's just the world we live in."
The report was prepared at the request of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Homeland Security Department and the CIA.
The academy is a private institution that provides scientific advice under a congressional charter.