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Bioterrorism Fight Could Be Creating New Hazards

Global Security Newswire

The push to defend the United States against bioterrorism by licensing more researchers and facilities to conduct related experiments could be creating new hazards, the Baltimore Sun reported yesterday (see GSN, June 25).

Some scientists say the increase in the number of individuals and organizations conducting germ research in the United States — now standing at 11,119 workers in 317 laboratories — heightens the possibility of an accidental or even deliberate release of those pathogens.

The growing effort has achieved some successes, such as developing new ways to detect anthrax, said Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University. However, “I think we’ve spent an awful lot of money, and I'm not sure we’re much better off,” he added.

The U.S. Bioterrorism Act, passed after the anthrax mail attacks of 2001 killed five people, imposed new regulations on germ research.

American Biological Safety Association President Stefan Wagener said many of the new regulations have been beneficial.

“I would say the impact has been positive,” said Wagener, a microbiologist who oversees the Canada’s highest-security biological defense lab. “But has the law made the United States safer from an insider’s bioterrorist attack? That’s harder to answer,” he added.

Since registration began last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has inspected and certified 235 facilities nationwide and granted provisional approval to 82 more to work with anthrax and other select agents. The 11,119 researchers have been cleared by the FBI of criminal or terrorist backgrounds.
The number of projects involving anthrax went from 28 in 2000 to 253 last year, while projects mentioning “bioterrorism” and related terms increased from 25 in 2000 to 665 last year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The number of institutions working actively with select agents has skyrocketed,” said Edward Hammond, who tracks biodefense research for the Sunshine Project, a Texas-based watchdog group. “In terms of accidental release, I think we’re unquestionably less safe than we were before 2001,” he added (Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, June 27).