Biodefense researchers in the United States, watch out. A crescendo of concerns over biosecurity and biosafety expressed at different forums today may signal that tougher oversight of research involving dangerous pathogens is around the corner. That includes the possibility that the federal government will be given the power to decide whether any new proposed biodefense facilities ought to be built and, if so, where.
At two hearings on the Hill today, U.S. lawmakers talked about the need to strengthen the monitoring of research on select agents, deadly microorganisms like anthrax and smallpox that could potentially be used as weapons. A House panel heard testimony from Nancy Kingsbury of the Government Accountability Office, which released a report yesterday recommending that a single federal entity be responsible for determining how many more biocontainment labs the country needs and where those labs should be located. The recommendation follows years of protests by environmental groups who say the mushrooming of biosafety level 3 and BSL-4 facilities across the United States since 2001 poses a public health risk.
A Senate panel discussed the topic in the afternoon with witnesses from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as Kingsbury and others. The tone was similar, with the panel chair, Benjamin Cardin (D–MD), asking pointed questions about why the federal government lacks a central authority to oversee select agent research. (Although the select agent program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requires institutions with select agents to register with the government, there is nothing in the rules that explicitly restricts the building of new biocontainment facilities.) Both Cardin and the representatives from DOD and DHS spoke favorably of a tiering system for select agents—an emerging idea among biodefense experts—under which facilities and researchers dealing with the most dangerous pathogens would be subject to the most stringent controls.
The implication of U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks came up several times during the Senate hearing. Kingsbury pointed out that an increase in the number of researchers handling select agents would "inevitably" lead to an amplification of the insider threat: the risk of an attack masterminded by a scientist working at a biocontainment facility. Ivins's name is sure to be mentioned at a public meeting being held today by a National Research Council panel that is reviewing safety issues relating to a proposed expansion of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland, where Ivins worked for more than 3 decades. Members of local citizens' groups that are opposed to the expansion will be in attendance when the meeting is opened for public comments at 7 p.m.