If we take nothing else away from this pandemic, we must take away our commitment to robust, effective biosecurity screening programs.
It’s an unsettling fact that the list of harmful pathogens (e.g. viruses and toxins) is not finite. This is clear because naturally occurring pathogens appear in our lives on a regular basis. However, not all of them rise to the level of immediate, worldwide concern. As we see in the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, when a virus does rise to the level of international concern, suppliers rush to adapt their screening processes as soon as the sequence of concern is identified. In the case of COVID-19, this means they have adapted before official additions to control lists have taken place.
A New Pathogen Has an International Effect
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused warranted concern around the world. This virus is transmitted not only by those with obvious symptoms but also by those who are asymptomatic. The knowledge that someone who may not even feel ill is spreading the virus makes it impossible to go about normal daily life. As the pandemic continues, scientists and medical professionals are working to develop a vaccine; this is essential because we lack natural immunity to this virus.
Concern About the Ability to Synthesize
Unfortunately, the ability to screen for this sequence of concern necessarily means that this sequence is known. Since “knowing” is the first part of “doing,” it also means that bad actors now have the information required to replicate this virus. These bad actors also have all the evidence they need to assure them that this, or any other virus, introduced in today’s global economy will spread widely and quickly while causing severe human suffering and global economic damage.
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Mitigating the Risk
In the near future, we will have developed AI systems sophisticated enough to use our knowledge of existing sequences to extrapolate potential new sequences of concern. However, today we are not able to effectively screen for entities that are as yet unknown. We cannot identify those with ill intent in every single case. All of these facts make it essential that we take the steps we can to mitigate the risk today as we work to a higher level of control in the future.
Screening is a Must
If we take nothing else away from this pandemic, we must take away our commitment to robust, effective screening programs. Members of the industry-led International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) represent about 80% of global gene synthesis capacity. These international and national members are committed to a Harmonized Screening Protocol that is aligned with the goals of the U.S. HHS 2010 Screening Framework Guidance.
Moving forward, it is essential that suppliers receive updates to the Control Lists as quickly and efficiently as possible. They must also continue to incorporate any new information into their systems as quickly as possible. In some cases, this may mean incorporating a cloud-based solution like Battelle’s ThreatSEQ DNA Screening Service. In others, this may mean devoting additional resources to the people in charge of screening and compliance.
As a final measure, verification of customers in each and every case, perhaps with a re-screening of some less frequent customers, must be undertaken. With these steps in place, those with good intent will have created an environment in which those with ill intent will find it difficult to procure what they need.