Senate tweaks bioterror regs

The US Senate today (June 11) plans to introduce a biosafety bill that takes small steps towards resolving some controversial aspects of the system regulating research with agents that could be used for bioterrorism. The regulations, called the Select Agent Program, have been controversial since they were established in 2002. Researchers have said that the rules linkurl:created red tape;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14717/ that stymied research, hindered international collaborati

Alla Katsnelson
Jun 10, 2008
The US Senate today (June 11) plans to introduce a biosafety bill that takes small steps towards resolving some controversial aspects of the system regulating research with agents that could be used for bioterrorism. The regulations, called the Select Agent Program, have been controversial since they were established in 2002. Researchers have said that the rules linkurl:created red tape;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14717/ that stymied research, hindered international collaboration, and prevented states from obtaining information on agents being studied, thus hindering biopreparedness programs. Some also charged that the list of agents was outdated, and that the program used an inappropriate classification system, which lumped safe agents with dangerous ones. At issue in particular was a restriction against work on smallpox virus, which extended to vaccinia virus that is not in fact dangerous. The new bill, introduced by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) on behalf of himself and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), extends funding for the...
gulating research with agents that could be used for bioterrorism. The regulations, called the Select Agent Program, have been controversial since they were established in 2002. Researchers have said that the rules linkurl:created red tape;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14717/ that stymied research, hindered international collaboration, and prevented states from obtaining information on agents being studied, thus hindering biopreparedness programs. Some also charged that the list of agents was outdated, and that the program used an inappropriate classification system, which lumped safe agents with dangerous ones. At issue in particular was a restriction against work on smallpox virus, which extended to vaccinia virus that is not in fact dangerous. The new bill, introduced by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) on behalf of himself and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), extends funding for the program, which expired last September, for five years. It calls for the federal government to update its agents list and clarify its definition of the smallpox virus to exclude less dangerous viruses, and demands that the government conduct a study on how well the Select Agent Program is functioning. It also mandates biosafety training for researchers working in biosafety level 3 and level 4 labs, and a reporting system for safety breaches -- suggestions made at a linkurl:Congressional hearing on biosafety;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53679/ held last October. Finally, it gives state governments access to select agent registration information. Overall, said linkurl:Richard Ebright,;http://rutchem.rutgers.edu/content_dynamic/faculty/richard_h_ebright.shtml a microbiologist at Rutgers University who endorsed the bill in a letter to Senator Burr, the new law "extends and provides funding for an essential program," which has long needed to be revised. But he said that the new bill does not go far enough, because while it demands that the government fix gaps in the program, it doesn't provide any specific guidance for how to do that. For example, in revising the definition of smallpox, "the bill calls for the issue to be explored, rather than suggesting an outcome," he said. linkurl:Gigi Gronvall;http://www.upmc-biosecurity.org/website/center/staff/gronvall.html of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center noted that some researchers believed that the Select Agent Program should be scrapped entirely -- a sentiment she disagrees with. "I don't hold any illusion that this would stop anyone from stealing [a listed pathogen] and potentially working on it as a weapon," she said, but it was still important "to know who is working on what." During the 2001 anthrax attack, she noted, the government's response was, "'We have no idea who works with anthrax.'" But, she said, "that's the wrong answer."

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