Responsible access to genetic sequences

In most places, to buy a gun, you have to have a licence. Such a licence certifies your need to have a gun and a clean criminal record. In contrast, anyone can currently access any genetic blueprint, including those of deadly pathogens. I think we need to build responsible access systems, so that certain genetic blueprints, whether already known or discovered in the future, can only be accessed with legitimate reason. 

In a recent related paper, James Smith and I argue that we might look at patient data as a parallel. For privacy reasons, access to patient data is tightly controlled. To access this patient data, researchers need to prove their credentials and need to apply with a concrete project. It seems reasonable to argue that a blueprint for a pandemic weapon should be subject to at least the same level of scrutiny. Similar to how patient data is anonymised unless absolutely required, a responsible access system could ensure that those genetic sequence fractions are shared with developers of vaccines and other countermeasures that are actually needed. 

Responsible access systems are both a technical and public engagement challenge. We need to find ways to create responsible access systems while generating as least friction as possible for legitimate research. This might involve direct work with genetic sequence repositories like GenBank, European Nucleotide Archive, DNA Data Bank of Japan, and GISAID. Furthermore, responsible access needs to consider equitable access and prevent discrimination against researchers from developing countries.

Sceptics might argue that dangerous organisms are already out of the box. However, currently, we are still protected by our limited knowledge of blueprints for pandemic-capable pathogens against which we do not have any countermeasures. It seems likely that we will discover pathogens worse than those already known in the future. To prevent their proliferation, we need to build responsible access systems now. 

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