Panel: Overzealous rules may stifle germ research

Sep 30, 2009 By DAVID DISHNEAU , Associated Press Writer

(AP) -- A panel of university and private-sector scientists urged Congress on Thursday not to overregulate laboratories that handle the world's deadliest pathogens, saying it could have a chilling effect on research of biological threats.

The 161-page report by a National Research Council committee says the best protections against deliberate misuse of deadly germs are policies promoting a culture of trust and responsibility among scientists, including peer-reporting of unusual behavior.

The committee is one of several advisory panels created after the FBI concluded last year that Army scientist Bruce Ivins sent anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and sickened 17 others in 2001. Ivins, who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., died of an apparent suicide in July 2008.

Congress is considering heightened security standards for labs that handle deadly pathogens.

The report rejects measures like the investigation of researchers' credit histories - an approach used at Defense Department labs. Such "overzealous" regulation in the name of enhanced security could dissuade young scientists from pathogen research and slow progress on protections against biological threats, the report says.

"The committee concluded there is no 'silver bullet,' that is, no single assessment tool that can offer the prospect of effectively screening out every potential terrorist," the report states.

However, active monitoring and management could detect many problems early, the report says.

Committee Chairwoman Rita R. Colwell, president and chief executive of CosmosID Inc., a Bethesda-based biotechnology company, declined to discuss the Ivins case. But she said measures the government has implemented since the 2001 attacks have improved safety and security.

Those measures include strengthened federal oversight of labs and individuals working with any of the more than 80 pathogens listed as Biological Select Agents and Toxins.

"I think every lab we visited was striving to meet the guidelines," she told The Associated Press.

The panel recommended that security enhancements focus on the people and labs that work with the fewer than 10 agents that can be weaponized - including anthrax, plague bacteria, and the ricin and botulism toxins.

One such measure, the committee said, should be a rule that "no one works alone." It would require a second person to be in regular, scheduled voice or video contact with someone working with a pathogen, although not necessarily in the same lab.

Such a rule, intended mainly as a safety precaution, differs from the "two-person" rule regulators considered in the wake of the Ivins disclosures. A two-person rule would require a second person to be in the lab. Many scientists said it would be too cumbersome and could endanger the second person.

David R. Franz, a former commander of the Army lab at Fort Detrick who now works for contractor Midwest Research Institute in Frederick, opposed a two-person rule but said a "no one works alone" rule makes sense.

"When you look at the safety implications, the cost and efficiency implications and the security implications together, the approach proposed in this report looks reasonable to me," Franz wrote in an e-mail.

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On the Net:

National Research Council: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/NRC/index.htm

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