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Media & Review

DNA sequences of smallpox and other pathogens available online

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Jul 15, 2006 | From the print edition

-- Bio Threat UK

The dna sequence of smallpox and other pathogens such as the poliovirus are available online and can be purchased. The Guardian tried to purchase a small sequence of smallpox dna that was eliminated three years ago.

The uk daily made an online request of three small modifications of a dna sample, which later turned out to be that of the smallpox virus. vh B io Ltd, the uk- based company that delivered the sequence claimed ignorance that the product was related to smallpox. The company's chairman, Alan Volkers, said his company does not usually screen orders less than 100 letters long. The newspaper order was for a 78-letter dna sequence.

"There are no regulations in place which require us to carry out background checks. We will comply with regulations when introduced," Volkers said. There are 39 companies in North America that handle such orders and many do not even screen requests. None of the four primary firms in the uk conduct such screening.

The Guardian reported: "Online availability of the smallpox virus's dna sequence could mean easy spread of the virus, particularly because many still lack immunity. More than two million people could be infected within six months of the exposure of just 10 people to the disease." Producing smallpox, however, is likely to be more difficult than the recreation of polio or the 1918-influenza. The smallpox genome is 185,000 letters in length, while the influenza genome has 13,500 letters and polio 7,741 letters. While too advanced for an amateur, the process could be achieved with access to a basic lab, doctorate-level personnel and ample funds. The fear of misuse always looms large.

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