Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) successfully passed Assembly Bill (AB) 70 out of the State Assembly with bipartisan support. AB 70 would require gene synthesis companies operating in California to conduct public safety screenings of their customers and the gene sequences they order. Gene synthesis is the process of designing and synthesizing sequences of DNA. This allows researchers to create a gene from scratch and scientists have shown that it is possible to construct deadly diseases like COVID-19 and Ebola by using bits of DNA that can be ordered online from gene synthesis companies. Currently, there are no requirements that companies screen their customers or the orders of DNA that they request.
“We need to tackle the public safety risks that come along with this dangerous technology that can wind up in the wrong hands,” said Assemblymember Salas. “Without screening customers and their orders, we are vulnerable to bioterrorists that could use mail-order DNA to assemble deadly diseases. AB 70 would make California the first state to enact its own public safety guidelines to ensure that gene synthesis companies are operating in a way that protects our communities from criminals who would abuse 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 their 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 US 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.”
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 70 would address this issue by requiring gene synthesis companies operating in California to be a member of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC), which is an industry-led group of gene synthesis companies and organizations formed to design and apply a common protocol to screen both the sequences of synthetic gene orders and the customers who place them. Under AB 70, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) would establish a collaborative partnership with the IGSC and maintain oversight to ensure that companies are implementing public safety screening protocols.
AB 70 will now head to the California State Senate.