Synthetic Poliovirus: Bioterrorism and Science Policy Implications

In July 2002, an online scientific journal published a report describing how to make the virus that causes polio from mail-ordered pieces of DNA. This sparked widespread concern that the same process could be used by terrorists to make this or other biological agents. Most bioterrorism experts agree that it would be much easier, cheaper, and quicker to obtain most such agents from naturally occurring sources. Smallpox and Ebola are frequently cited as exceptions; however, these agents would be significantly more difficult to synthesize than poliovirus. To limit the threat posed by this type of research, policymakers have discussed approaches that include: increasing oversight of the DNA suppliers, limiting access to the genetic information of select pathogens, and regulating the publishing of information deemed possibly helpful to terrorists. This report will be updated as events warrant.