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Boston 2002 Sunday, 17 February, 2002, 23:30 GMT
Call for bioweapons database
AAAS Boston 2002, BBC
Black, BBC

A database that contains the genetic details of all the bacteria and viruses that could be used in a bioterrorist attack should be established straight away, leading American scientists have said.

This is just one of the measures they believe are necessary to counter the perceived threat of bioterrorism.

Other initiatives include greater security in laboratories where dangerous microbes are kept and the development of new ways of diagnosing infections. The researchers have also urged the US Government to engage with other nations on biological weapons.

The scientists made their comments at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston.

Better information

The Bush administration has diverted significant sums of money into research on bioterrorism countermeasures, and has set up a scientific advisory committee to decide how to spend it.

Fraser, BBC
Claire Fraser: The scientists want the US to go back to the Biological Weapons Convention
The emphasis is not on quick fixes, but on measures which the government hopes will provide long-term protection from germ terror.

Already extra funding has gone into sequencing the genome of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. The strain being decoded is the one that killed 63-year-old Bob Stevens, a picture editor on the Sun newspaper in Boca Raton, Florida; he was the first person to die in last year's anthrax attack.

The work is nearing completion at The Institute of Genomic Research (Tigr). The institute's head, Dr Claire Fraser, believes it is now time for a genome database on every agent that could potentially be used as a bioweapon.

She told the BBC it might give scientists the quick answers they needed in the event of a major attack.

"We can immediately go to the database and have a much better idea of what this organism is; where it potentially came from, whether it has been genetically engineered, and what antibiotics it is most sensitive to," she said.

Bioweapons convention

Such a project would take time to set up and would cost many millions of dollars, but it typifies the wide-scale, long-range thinking on bioterrorism.

Other scientists speaking at the AAAS meeting said there was an urgent need to recruit more researchers with expertise in diseases like anthrax, which in normal times hardly registered in American life.

Asked if other nations should feel threatened by the sums of money being spent of bio-countermeasures, the researchers agreed that the US should be as open as possible in its activities.

"The key is transparency," said Anthony Fauci, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We must make the financing of the research perfectly open so that everyone can see where the money goes."

The scientists said it would be helpful in this respect if the Bush government were to engage with the rest of the world by rejoining the Biological Weapons Convention.

Claire Fraser
The database would provide quick answers
See also:

23 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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