Government Ignores Bioterror
Hazards of Genetic Engineering


Iowa company that provided DNA for manmade polio virus says it urged
government to oversee shipments

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa company that unknowingly supplied bits of
genetic material used by scientists to make their own polio virus from
scratch said it had recently asked the government to take steps to oversee
the shipment of such DNA supplies.

Last week's stunning announcement by researchers at State University of New
York at Stony Brook that they had made the virus in their lab raised a new
set of fears about bioterrorism.

It was the first time a virus had been synthetically produced, and it was
done with a genetic blueprint from the Internet and DNA material provided
by a mail-order supplier.

The supplier was Integrated DNA Technologies, or IDT, of Coralville, a
suburb of Iowa City. An official of the company said Wednesday that IDT
wrote the Defense Department on May 13 about the possible terrorist use of
such biomedical material, but never got a response.

``We had submitted a proposal to the Defense Department, ironically,
suggesting that (DNA) sequences ordered by suppliers like ourselves be
screened and then reported to federal agencies for the purposes of
identifying orders or parts of orders that would be perhaps investigated,
questioned, double-checked or whatever,'' said Roman Terrill, vice
president of legal and regulatory affairs for IDT. ``The inquiries that we
sent weren't really responded to.''

Defense Department spokesmen declined to answer questions and only provided
a statement about the department's involvement in the SUNY project.
Terrill said IDT only became aware that its supplies were used by the SUNY
scientists when they made their announcement of the polio virus in the
journal Science last week.

The Defense Department said it funded the project to research protections
against unconventional biological agents. SUNY research team leader, Dr.
Eckard Wimmer, said the creation of the virus was an attempt to show the
reality of the bioterrorist threat.

The fear is that a terrorist or government might attack by spreading a
harmful virus or deadly bacteria. Most of the concern so far has focused on
security at labs that have supplies of germs or on finding treatments or
vaccines to thwart such an attack.

But the SUNY project demonstrated for the first time that deadly diseases
could be made synthetically in a lab.

``This approach has been talked about, but people didn't take it
seriously,'' Wimmer said last week. ``Now people have to take it

Terrill said the project illustrates an ethical dilemma: ``DNA can be used
to cure a virus or to help develop cures. On the other hand, DNA can be
used for more nefarious purposes.''

IDT is one of a handful of companies across the country that supplies about
15,000 customers with short fragments of DNA used in medical research.
These strands, called oligonucleotides, are basic tools in all genetics

But Terrill said the DNA supplier has no way of knowing how the genetic
fragments it ships will be used.

``It's kind of like a phone number. They're ordering a phone number where
we have the equivalent of seven digits. Without an area code, you really
can't specify where the call is coming from. You need a longer sequence to
identify it,'' Terrill said.

Besides polio, the genetic maps to anthrax, Ebola and other diseases are
readily available to researchers in libraries and on the Internet, he said.
Gary Comstock, coordinator of the bioethics program at Iowa State
University, said there is ``a clash of values'' between society's desire
for innovation and new bioengineering technologies and the desire to
protect ourselves from those who would abuse the new technologies.

``Given the events of Sept. 11 and since, I think the issue has a
particular urgency for us that it may not have had a year or two ago.''

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