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Anaheim 99 Sunday, 24 January, 1999, 21:40 GMT
Genome defence strategy
AAAS
AAAS Expo
A project to sequence the genes in potential biological weapons such as bubonic plague and anthrax should be considered by governments, scientists said on Sunday.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science expo in California, they called for a kind of bio-terrorism genome project, similar to the Human Genome Project currently under way to map all the genes in people.

Having all the genetic information about such pathogens could help in the design of quick tests to detect an attack, and in the development of drugs to treat or vaccines to prevent infection.

"If we have the genetic code of every pathogen ... it would act as a deterrent," said Dr Craig Venter of the Celera Genomics Corporation.

His view was supported by Dr Frank Young, a former US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist. Both men have advised President Clinton on bio-terrorism. Dr Young said genomics was essential to an effective defence strategy.

"Right now it takes about 48 to 72 hours to identify a particular organism," he told the BBC. "With the advent of genomics you can use probes and you can make this in minutes rather than long periods of time."

Civilian spin-offs

With the world experiencing a rise in infectious diseases - both in developing and developed nations - he believed the research would have big civilian spin-offs.

"The research is a very forward looking approach in which you look at genetic traits that cause pathogenic disease. You look at new vaccines to overcome them, you design new antibiotics - and whether that is for terrorism or for emerging infections, man-made or natural, it matters not."

Dr Young served on a committee of experts who advised President Bill Clinton on the risks of bio-terrorism last year. He said the odds of an attack were low. "But the consequences are so high that for a nation not to be prepared is unthinkable," he said.

On Friday, President Clinton asked Congress for more than $2.8bn to defend against chemical and germ warfare and protect computer networks.

Dr Young said civil defence measures - stockpiles of antibiotics, strengthening of public health infrastructure, etc - need to be strengthened until science provides a proper defence. He said it was also necessary "to catalyse international treaties to focus on the reduction of the use of biological weaponry."

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