HAGERSTOWN, Md. – A panel of university and private-sector scientists urged Congress on Wednesday 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 protection against deliberate misuse of deadly germs is a laboratory culture of trust and responsibility, 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.
At a press briefing in Washington, panel members rejected psychological examinations, polygraph tests and other screening measures 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, monitoring by co-workers and lab managers could detect many problems early, committee members said.
"And that's where you would be able to pick up those types of cues and clues that something's not right that maybe, in some instance, and we would hope never again, would result in another incident like 2001," said Michael G. Gelles, a former Navy criminal psychologist now with Deloitte Consulting LLP in Washington.
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 82 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 report recommends creation of an advisory committee composed of laboratory and government officials that would help refine the pathogen list and standardize security measures.
The panel recommended that security enhancements focus on labs that work with the fewer than 10 agents known to have been 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.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who called last week for heightened biolab security, said he supports the panel's recommendations for coordinated oversight and pathogen prioritization.
"I look forward to also reviewing the report's recommendations in terms of the trade-offs between strengthening security and chilling bioterrorism research," Cardin said.
I chose this article because although it is not something that we consider on a daily basis, this issue is something that will affect us, directly or indirectly, some way or another. These labs are doing things from developing vaccines for deadly viruses to better understanding dangers like anthrax. What takes place in these laboratories greatly affects healthcare, national security, and therefore, us. If these new implications hinder the researchers, we're going to see it & feel the negative effects, but if it benefits the laboratories we'll also see a rise in the stability of healthcare and national security.