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Why Implement Biosecurity Screening When You Can't Catch Everything?

Screening even when you can’t catch everything is not an exercise in futility.

While at industry events and in industry forums, you’ve likely heard someone ask, “Why do we bother screening when current methods can't catch everything and bad actors will just circumvent the system?" It’s a good question with some even better answers. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Not screening because it’s not perfect is short-sighted in the extreme. Not screening requests for synthetic DNA sequences leaves the door wide open for anyone to request any sequence they desire. Companies that don’t screen their customers and sequences are either relying on the unlikelihood that their company will be chosen to source a sequence of concern or on the inherent good of all potential customers. This is the equivalent of a lender loaning very large sums of money without a credit check. It’s just not sound business practice. It’s also arguably far more serious because one customer with ill intent and a sequence of concern can very easily decimate whole sectors or regions of the world.

  2. If we don’t screen at all, we’ll never learn what is and is not effective. If the biotech industry declines to screen at all because nothing is perfect, it wastes the opportunity to experience and experiment with screening protocols. What looks good on paper may not work in real life - think Titanic. By testing theories and assumptions through the implementation and maintenance of an active DNA synthesis screening program, those fulfilling orders can see firsthand what is efficient and what is time-consuming, as well as what is necessary and what is not. By sharing their experience with other companies, they may reach a consensus on best practices.

  3. Screening programs will hinder some bad actors. The argument can be made that if someone wants to do something badly enough, they will do it. An effective DNA sequence screening program will, at the very least, hinder some bad actors. First, these bad actors will have to correctly guess the sorts of screening protocols in place. Then, they will have to take steps to circumvent these protocols. Even if they are successful, the attempt will require time, thought, and expense on the part of these bad actors. It is also possible that, somewhere in the process, they will slip up and be detected.

  4. Screening programs act as a deterrent to some bad actors. For those wishing to do harm to a great number of people, the use of deadly pathogenic DNA sequences may seem like a terrific idea. In moving to actualize the use of these pathogens, the bad actors will quickly find that it is not easy to obtain these sequences. The fact that there is a high probability of detection because so many of the suppliers have DNA sequence screening programs, will be enough to deter those bad actors who are working without an unlimited amount of funds and expertise.

  5. Screening programs offer some protection under the law. When a supplier who doesn’t screen customers and orders delivers a deadly synthetic pathogen in fulfillment of an order from a bad actor, the response to that lapse will be swift and irate. Those exposed to the pathogen, as well as those whose crops may have been damaged, or habitat may have been destroyed, will want to be made good for these damages. It’s very possible that the person harmed can claim that the company screening did not do what was necessary to preserve the public good. For this purely business reason, screening is good business.

  6. Those fulfilling orders for potentially deadly pathogens have a responsibility to the scientific community. Synthetic DNA sequences play a vital role in research across a broad range of purposes. The gains to be made by this dual-use research are immense. To safeguard the use of these sequences for legitimate use, it’s imperative that those fulfilling orders for these sequences screen the customers and sequences in keeping with the latest guidance. Since they are the ones creating the sequences to order, they are the ones in the best place to ensure their safe use.


Interested in Battelle’s ThreatSEQ™ DNA Screening Service? 
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Screening customers and sequences is important. Even though it is not possible to catch every bad actor, effective DNA sequence screening programs like the IGSC Harmonized Screening Protocol used by members of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) are one way to screen. Cloud-based services like Battelle’s ThreatSEQ DNA Screening Service are another. The final goal is to work smart, together, to create the best screening systems possible.

July 31, 2020
Neeraj Rao
Estimated Read Time
4 Mins

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