A National Research Council expert panel is urging scientists to pursue new, reliable methods for distinguishing biological attacks from other outbreaks.
"In the event of a suspected biological attack, leaders would have questions about the identity and source of the biological threat," says a report released on Friday by the influential federal advisory body. "Forensic science can help answer these questions, and it is essential that the answers be reliable."
"Microbial forensics" is still a young field, though, and any effort to develop reliable analytical techniques may depend on new gene-sequencing technologies to assess vast numbers of microorganisms in advance, according to the authors.
"Until recently there have been few systematic efforts to collect and describe the microbes living in soil, seawater, freshwater lakes and streams, on plants, and even commensally in the guts or other surfaces of humans and other animals," they wrote in the report.
The panel said that such "baseline" knowledge may prove crucial to determining whether viruses or bacteria in a disease outbreak are significantly different from what is normal for their environment. That information, in turn, could aid in assessing "whether the presence of that pathogen is natural or the result of a deliberate or inadvertent release," according to the report.
The authors warned, though, that collecting such "metagenomic" data would require a major global effort.
"Formal international scientific collaborations will need to be created to ensure that technological resources are accessible to all nations, including developing countries that currently lack such resources, and that funding can be leveraged better," the findings state. "This is a high-priority need for the research and funding agendas both inside and outside the United States that requires a coordinated effort on an international scale."
The National Research Council expert panel prepared its findings in consultation with the British Royal Society, the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts and the International Union of Microbiological Societies.