L. Neil Smith's
Number 197, November 4, 2002



from the Editor

New Antiterrorism Tenets Trouble Scientists
Researchers scramble to keep up with rapidly issued rules that regulate bacteria and toxins
by Peg Brickley

When the anthrax assaults of last fall transformed bioterrorism from theoretical possibility to reality, Congress wasted little time cranking out new laws that target laboratory operations. Within weeks of the attack on the World Trade Center, the USA Patriot Act whipped through Congress and became law, adding criminal sanctions to existing "biological weapons" statutes. A scant seven months later, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act was signed, underlining the need to control access to compounds and pathogens with weapons potential. ...

... a draft directive from the Department of Defense surfaced in May and touched off a furor among scientists and university research administrators. Not a law or a White House policy, to many, it was an amorphous and ominous compendium of restrictions on free communication and free travel. Particularly worrisome to scientists are proposed restrictions on the right to publish findings and data for examination, verification, and expansion.

Yet leading scientific societies now voluntarily censor publications. ...

... An arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) submitted its report on vulnerability in America's croplands for approval by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the new Department of Homeland Security before its publication in September.(1) "At its own discretion, the National Academies decided to remove certain detailed and specific information from the report," the National Research Council said in a Sept. 19 press release.

... The [NAS panel studying the rules and processes aimed at preventing the life sciences from being turned to the purposes of mass destruction]'s discussions with White House policy makers and those in the homeland agency reveal grave concerns about the handling of "sensitive information," but no definition of sensitive materials, she says. "It's hard to comply with something when it's formless."

Scientists who assumed they operated as part of a global community were discomfited by crackdowns on contacts with international students and colleagues. An early presidential directive ordered measures to be put into place that would "end the abuse of student visas" and keep "certain" international students out of "sensitive areas" of study. ...

While the rules are being batted around, some working researchers are simply dumping material that could wind up on the select-agent list. To some, that seems the safe and sensible thing to do, so that when auditors come knocking, nothing that could trigger their suspicions is on hand.

To others, the quiet voluntary dumping of pathogen samples is the scientific equivalent of book burning. Some samples are historical collections of strains that may provide the key to future cures. Researchers have been holding onto them for years, waiting for time or technology to unlock their potential. Now they are being destroyed in fear of regulation, not fear of bioterrorism. "We'll comply with whatever the federal government wants us to do," says Ellyn Segal, biosafety manager at Stanford University. "But compliance is going to be difficult because they're still not defining the dangers."

Peg Brickley (dbizpeg@aol.com) is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

(1) National Academy of Sciences, "Countering agriculture bioterrorism," Sept. 19, 2002.

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