Biosecurity panelists ask: How secure is too secure?

By Megan Piotrowski

Current precautions to safeguard scientists and consumers from dangerous pathogens used in bioweapons research may be too restrictive, discouraging some researchers from staying in the field, federal officials said on Feb. 20 at the 2011 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C.

Some doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers have considered leaving the biosecurity field because of excessive applicant screening processes, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“If the measures are unreasonably intrusive, some of the best and brightest scientists will walk away because they can work anywhere,” Fauci said.

Other speakers at the plenary session on biosecurity weighed in on the non-ideal regulations surrounding the handling and use of pathogens and toxins.

“There are 82 items currently listed as select agents or toxins,” said Rita Colwell, distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. She recommends that the list of pathogens or toxins be stratified from the most to least harmful select agents so scientists are not overburdened with regulations for toxins that are not current threats.

However, a U.S. Congress member advocated for current or stronger security measures surrounding biosecurity research by discussing his experiences during the notorious anthrax mailings in 2001.

U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) said he was troubled by the investigative techniques concerning the anthrax case. He spoke of two major errors made by the FBI during the investigation. One was the accusation of scientist Bruce Ivins with circumstantial evidence, and the other was the false identification of the chemical benzonite as evidence of foreign involvement. Both errors had tragic consequences, including Ivins's eventual suicide.

“If the next case is handled as badly and unscientifically as the last one, we could be in big trouble,” he said.

After Holt spoke, the other panelists discussed the difficulties the FBI faced during the investigation due to the newness of the area of research now known as microbial forensics.

“In 2001, we had only 40 pathogen genomes sequenced,” said panelist Claire M. Fraser-Ligget, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Now, we have thousands.”

The panelists said this was indicative of the limited microbial forensic techniques available to the FBI at the time; they had to learn and develop new skills while working under classified conditions.

However, even with new research methods, “Science alone would not have been able to identify the perpetrator,” Fauci said.

Panelists agreed that a re-evaluation of current biosecurity measures is in progress as researchers and policymakers alike seek a middle ground.

Megan Piotrowski is a student and writer from the suburb of Tinley Park, Illinois. In May, she will graduate from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. She has previously written for The Daily Illini student newspaper. Reach her at mpiotro2@illinois.edu.

February 25, 2011

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