News: News Archives
Experts Urge Scientists, Law Enforcement to Strengthen Lab Safety Guidelines
In the wake of new bioterrorism threats and widely-reported security lapses at several of the nation's largest research universities, a panel of experts at a AAAS briefing urged scientists and law enforcement officials to work together to strengthen laboratory security guidelines.
By encouraging scientists and the government to collaborate through national standards for pathogen storage, formal accident response procedures, and increased physical security around laboratories, the United States can significantly reduce its risk of a biological terrorist attack or accident, they said.
"As the United States continues to advance in the biological sciences, the country must protect itself against the dangers of the more potent science," said Barry Kellman, a law professor at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. "Scientists must come together with law enforcement to create a national and international security framework."
But efforts to create tighter security measures have been met with resistance from scientists, said the panel at the 27 September briefing, cosponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and National Research Council's Program on Development, Security and Cooperation.
Kellman, who has worked closely on biosecurity issues with national and international organizations including the United Nations and the American Bar Association, said many scientists view law enforcement's new safety standards as hindrances.
By increasing the time and money required to work with select agent pathogens including Ebola, smallpox, bubonic plague, and anthrax, scientists argue that the additional steps are significantly impeding scientific advancement, Kellman said.
Agreeing with Kellman, Nancy Connell, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Biodefense at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said that some scientists view the government guidelines—meetings with law enforcement, special permits, on-site safety drills—to be too cumbersome, opting rather to discontinue research on those select pathogens.
"The new, stricter requirements on laboratories are causing some investigators to change research priorities," said Connell, who works with anthrax in her laboratory. "This has to be reversed because research on these pathogens is crucial for scientific progress."
Many of the stricter U.S. guidelines were created in 2001 after a series of letters and packages containing anthrax were sent to media and congressional offices around the United States. The panel estimated that around 600 research institutions were affected by the tighter guidelines.
Connell said that scientists can reduce the intrusion into their laboratory by increasing communication with campus officials and local law enforcement to ensure they have the proper permits and staff training.
The briefing came on the heels of an announcement that federal officials had suspended research on select pathogens at Texas A&M University after the school failed to report staff exposures to brucellosis and Q fever.
In addition, two reports earlier this month from the British government reported that a recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Britain was likely caused by faulty pipes at Merial, a company that was growing vaccines for the bluetongue virus
"Recent events have identified gaps in oversight of select agent research and demonstrated the need for the life science and law enforcement communities to develop trustworthy and transparent relationships," said Kavita Berger, senior program associate at CSTSP. "Ideally, these relationships and oversight mechanisms will not hinder scientific advancement as most select agents are found naturally and can pose threats to human, animal or plant health."
Kristine Beardsley, a supervisory special agent with the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, said that her office develops countermeasures to prevent terrorists from accessing or using biological agents, helps the federal and local governments develop preparedness plans, and regularly performs outreach to increase public awareness, especially among academic and scientific communities.
Beardsley said that the FBI in the past has uncovered documents indicating that terrorists are interested in obtaining and using biological weapons.
In response to these threats, policy makers, regulators, and several federal agencies have created "restrictions, regulations, and federal statutes that are aimed at preventing terrorists from committing bioterrorism crimes or having access to harmful biological agents," she said.
Beardsley said that it is important to constantly evaluate the bioterrorism threat and the impact regulations would have upon the advancement of life sciences.
"In a democracy, there is a constant balance that is needed between maintaining a free country and protecting citizens," she said. "It is therefore useful that these types of questions be openly discussed by government regulators, law enforcement, scientists, and the public."
Kellman said that any meaningful biosecurity framework to protect the United States would have to address the issue globally by more effectively tracking dangerous pathogens around the world.
"It is irresponsible to address the issue by only securing the U.S. supplies of dangerous pathogens," Kellman said, adding that it is imperative for other countries to get involved. "Pathogens do not care about borders."
10 October 2007