Accessibility links

US Science Panel Recommends Safeguards for Biotech Research - 2003-10-09


A National Academy of Sciences panel is recommending the creation of a new system to oversee and review scientific research that could potentially be used by bioterrorists.

In late 2001, anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. mail system, causing several deaths and creating mass panic.

The incident, by perpetrators who have yet to be found, demonstrates how biology might be used for dangerous purposes.

Gerald Fink, of the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, headed a panel of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which, before the anthrax incident, began looking at the dark side of biological research. Mr. Fink cites two concerns.

"The risk that [biological] agents that are the subject of research will be stolen, or diverted for malevolent purposes," he said "And the second is that research results could facilitate the creation of novel pathogens, or threat agents for use by hostile parties."

A report issued by the National Academy panel proposes that local bio-safety committees review scientific endeavors to determine whether they are potentially dangerous.

If the local committees are unable to reach a conclusion, the report recommends that the matter be considered by an advisory board to be created within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Panel members name seven research areas that should be considered, including experiments in vaccine research and drug studies that test the drug resistance of biological agents, such as bacteria and viruses.

Committee member David Franz, of the chemical and biological defense division of Southern Research Institute in Maryland, said the recommendations are not designed to squelch legitimate research.

"We are working with legitimate scientists, doing legitimate biotechnology in an attempt to reduce, if we can, the likelihood of good things being used for evil," he explained.

Mr. Franz said the proposed review system also might result in the identification of novel medical treatments, or vaccines that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The National Academy of Sciences panel hopes the proposed review system would encourage international cooperation.

The White House could create the review system without the consent of Congress. But The New York Times reports, the Bush administration may consider legislation for stricter oversight of biological science.

XS
SM
MD
LG