Scientists who work with dangerous biological agents fear that a government program strengthened after the anthrax scare of 2001 has hurt research into deadly diseases.
During the 1990s the federal government instituted the "select agent" program which controls the transfer of potentially deadly agents such as anthrax and botulinum toxin. The program was beefed up after the anthrax attacks to include, among other privisions, FBI checks of lab facilities and the personnel working with the agents.
A number of scientists voiced their concerns surrounding the select agent program during a June briefing organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. According to AAAS:
While not questioning the need for access controls and safety procedures for the study of dangerous agents, researchers have complained about the red tape involved in establishing high-containment laboratories and obtaining and sharing agents, particularly in the case of collaboration with international partners.
"These labs are necessary if you are going to work on diseases that cause harm," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall, senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Nevertheless, there has been a steady increase in the number of high-level security research facilities that handle dangerous agents built and planned nationwide despite the select agent program, said the AAAS. This has provoked controversy in the communities near where these research facilities have been constructed or planned. Research at Texas A&M University was halted after safety and reporting lapses were discovered, and the construction of a research facility at Boston University has been held up in court.
But a bill recently introduced by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) may ease the tension between scientific inquiry and public safety concerns. It calls on the National Academy of Sciences to comprehensively evaluate the special agent program while requiring the secretary of Health and Human Services to review how the government can improve oversight of research facilities, training of its laboratory personnel, and reporting mechanisms when biosafety concerns arise or incidents occur.
"Having a look at whether or not [the select agent program] really is interfering with scientific progress is definitely needed," Gronvall said.