California Leads the Nation in Strengthening Biosecurity with New Legislation
SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) introduced Assembly Bill 1966 (AB 1966) which would task the California State Department of Public Health (CDPH) with developing public safety screening guidelines for Gene Synthesis companies operating in California. Gene synthesis is the process of designing and synthesizing sequences of DNA. Scientists have shown that it is possible to construct deadly diseases like Ebola by using bits of DNA that can be ordered online from gene synthesis companies throughout the world. Currently, there are no requirements that companies screen their customers or the orders of DNA that they request.
“While gene synthesis serves an important function for research around the world, we need to address the public safety risks that come along with this technology,” said Assemblymember Salas. “Without screening customers and their orders, we are vulnerable to bioterrorists that could use customizable DNA to assemble deadly diseases. AB 1966 would make California the first state to enact its own public safety guidelines to ensure that gene synthesis companies are screening their customers so that our communities are protected from criminals that would use this technology for dangerous purposes.”
According to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, the synthesis of diseases, particularly small viruses, is one of the most pressing biodefense risks in the nation. With technological improvements and reduction of costs, gene synthesis companies have made ordering customizable DNA accessible and affordable. For most major companies, a customer can simply log on to a website, upload a DNA sequence, and order thousands of genes through the mail.
“California is leading the way in biosecurity,” said Dr. Gigi Gronvall, PhD, Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “They are doing what the U.S. federal government should do, frankly, what all governments should be doing—make it easier for companies to have basic biosecurity controls in place without putting them at a commercial disadvantage, and make it harder to make biological weapons.”
The genetic sequence information for most diseases is freely available. These sequences have been important as a research tool but their availability leaves open the possibility that bioterrorists could use them as a weapon. While most major gene synthesis companies already implement some sort of screening practices, California has no set guidelines and no requirement that companies abide by safe screening methods.
AB 1966 would address these issues by requiring CDPH to develop gene sequence and customer screening guidelines for synthesis companies with the purpose of increasing biosecurity efforts relating to the misuse of gene synthesis products.
By creating mandatory safety guidelines, California would become the first state in the nation to address the biosecurity concerns of emerging gene synthesis technologies and would significantly improve public safety outcomes throughout the state.
Assemblymember Salas represents part of the City of Bakersfield, the cities of Arvin, Hanford, Corcoran, Delano, Lemoore, McFarland, Shafter, Wasco, and the communities of Armona, Avenal, Buttonwillow, Home Garden, Kettleman City, Lamont, Lost Hills, Stratford and Weedpatch.