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Polio Paper Sparks Criticism From Congressional Representatives

29 July 2002 (All day)
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Dave Weldon. The Florida representative urges more caution in deciding what research gets funded and published.

Fears of bioterrorism and criticism of a recent Science paper that described creating poliovirus from mail-ordered DNA prompted a congressional resolution last week. It calls on journals, scientists, and funding agencies to reconsider which research they make public. The resolution also criticizes the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of Science and ScienceNOW, for accepting the paper.

The research, spearheaded by Eckard Wimmer and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, demonstrated for the first time what many researchers had thought likely: that a virus could be produced from scratch. The team ordered DNA from a company and, with the help of another biotechnology firm, assembled it into a functional polio virus (ScienceNOW, 11 July).

Calling the paper "a blueprint that could conceivably enable terrorists to inexpensively create human pathogens," Representative Dave Weldon (R-FL) introduced a resolution 26 July criticizing AAAS's decision to publish it. The resolution, which includes five Republican co-sponsors, also calls on government funding agencies to reconsider how they classify research. The polio work was funded by the Department of Defense and was unclassified.

"The technique reported in Science is neither a practical nor efficient method for making more complex, lethal viruses," said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS, in a statement. He also noted that methods used in this research had been previously published. Other scientists agreed, though they lambasted Science for a different reason: They claimed the paper had little scientific value. "I think it was done as a stunt" to garner attention, says Steven Block, a biophysicist at Stanford University who has advised the government on bioterrorism.

Related sites
ScienceNOW article on the American Society for Microbiology's call for a biomedical publishers meeting

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