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The variola, smallpox, virus (CDC/Dr. Kenneth L. Herrmann)
The variola, smallpox, virus (CDC/Dr. Kenneth L. Herrmann)

Press Release - 08 November 2006

Science Café discussion: is scientific openness fostering bioterror?

The Guardian journalist who investigated whether publicly-available gene ‘blueprints’ could be used to manufacture viruses, will lead a discussion in Bath on whether scientific openness is fostering bioterrorism (7.30pm, Monday 13 November 2006).

James Randerson - who studied for his PhD at the University of Bath - showed how small segments of the genetic blueprint, or genome, of smallpox could be purchased from companies who supply these segments, known as oligos, for a range of biomedical, law enforcement and research applications.

In his front page report, Dr Randerson asked whether this trade, together with published genome sequences, posed a bioterrorism risk (see related links section).

The report prompted calls for access to the technology to be restricted, and a government investigation into the potential threat.

Speaking ahead of the Science Café in The Raven pub in Bath next week, he raised the question of whether the genetic recipe for the virus that causes smallpox should be available freely on the internet.

“These are the dilemmas posed by recent advances in genetics and biotechnology which scientists and the rest of us must grapple with,” said Dr Randerson.

“Intellectual freedom and sharing of information are central to scientific progress, and any restrictions on that will make science harder to do and could limit society's access to future medicines.

“But should there be restrictions on who has access to the materials and equipment that can be used to make viruses in the future, and are the scientific benefits of resurrecting a strain of flu that killed more people than the First World War worth the risks?

“The debate about where the balance lies between letting scientists have the information they need and withholding it from would-be terrorists is interesting, and I look forward to hearing people’s opinions on this issue.”

The Science Café is an ongoing series of monthly events where some of the country’s leading scientists will talk informally about their research over a pint.

The event will be held in The Raven pub in Queen Street in the centre of town. No tickets or reservations are required - just turn up at 7.30pm for an 8.00pm start.

Organisers will ask for a small voluntary donation to cover travel costs for the speakers.

Other Bath Science Café events already planned include:

To register for e-mail alerts on forthcoming Science Café events, contact Melissa Spielman.

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