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Global Effort Sought to Prevent Misuse of Biomedical Advances

A U.S. scientific panel warns that the world needs to protect itself better from bioterrorism and other misuses of biomedical advances. It calls on the global scientific community to be vigilant against such practices and recommends creation of a special advisory board to work with intelligence and security agencies to detect and prevent them.

A committee of the U.S. National Academy of Science says advances in the life sciences have made it possible to manipulate living organisms in useful ways, leading to improvements in public health, agriculture, and other areas.

But the panel points out the growing risk that biomedical advances will be used to make novel biological weapons or misused by careless groups and individuals.

It has issued a new report outlining the risks and recommending ways of identifying and avoiding them. Committee member Stephen Morse is with Columbia University's Millman School of Public Health in New York.

"The purpose of this report is to look forward at what the future threats are going to be so that we can be better prepared for them," he said. "Even if they are unpredictable, there are many things we can do through these various measures to be prepared and to be able to deal with them."

As a start, the panel says the global scientific community should broaden its awareness of what bioterrorism can do. Panelist Joshua Epstein, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, emphasizes the importance of looking ahead and considering not merely current biomedical threats.

"We are acutely aware that these technologies are developing at an unprecedented pace, that they are distributed globally, and that these trends -- we only expect them to gain momentum," he noted.

The group recommends creation of an independent advisory board to analyze and forecast these fast changing scientific and technological trends to keep U.S. intelligence and national security officials informed of potential life sciences threats.

But the National Academy of Sciences experts say no single authority can police biotechnology, so they recommend promoting a shared sense of responsibility and ethical behavior among scientists around the world. They call on science and technology leaders to develop codes of conduct for life scientists. Additionally, they say scientists should collaboratively monitor the potential misuse of biomedical tools and intervene if necessary.

Epstein thinks misuse could be tracked and reported over the Internet.

"We think that having this system would change the risk calculation of potential offenders by raising the probability that their activities would be detected, reported, thwarted, and so on," he added.

At the same time, Epstein and his colleagues say biomedical advances are essential to thwarting bioterrorism. For example, only continuing research can develop antidotes to toxins terrorists might use. Committee chairman Stanley Lemon of the University of Texas Medical Branch says this means biomedical research must remain unfettered, despite the potential for misuse.

"We find that results of fundamental research should and must remain unrestricted, except in cases where national security requires classification," said Mr. Lemon.

The committee says that, in the end, nothing can guarantee that biomedical advances will be used only for peaceful purposes. Therefore, it recommends strengthening the public health infrastructure to improve its ability to protect against bioterrorist attacks.