Saturday, June 12, 2004
You will be reassured to know that the Bush administration is pursuing bioweapons research with its characteristically scrupulous attention to public safety. From the San Mateo County Times, via Laura Rozen of War and Piece:
The possible exposure of at least seven Oakland lab workers to anthrax is raising concerns among experts on the safety and oversight of biological agent research in the race to develop the nation's biodefenses . . . .
Scientists at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, who have been working on anthrax research for about a year, thought they were working with dead Bacillus anthracis.
Instead, the researchers were inadvertently sent live anthrax by their supplier, Southern Research Institute, from Frederick, Md.
The live sample, shipped via FedEx in liquid form three months ago, was injected into live mice beginning two weeks ago in an experiment to develop an anthrax vaccine for children. The mice died, raising alarms among the researchers, who did cultures to confirm the presence of the live agent. The FBI escorted the samples to the state's lab in Richmond Wednesday, where the findings were confirmed . . . .
Up until about five years ago, anthrax research was an extremely small field. Only about 10 to 15 researchers in the United States were working on it, including Dr. Martin Hugh-Jones, a foremost expert on anthrax at Louisiana State University.
Now there's unbelievable sums of money in it so everyone can discover all the pleasures of homeland security paperwork, Hugh-Jones said.
Developing an anthrax vaccine is a popular area of research. Give me a name of an institute and they're working on it, he said.
Richard Ebright, a microbiology professor and biosafety officer at Rutgers University, said the Oakland incident exposes loopholes in the regulation of the rapidly growing biodefense industry.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened laws and regulations governing the handling of select agents, the three categories of microorganisms thought to pose the greatest threat of use in terrorism and warfare.
But in two revisions, the CDC removed inactivated agent and avirulent or vaccine strains from the select agent list, in effect exempting them from all regulation. Inactivated Bacillus anthracis, such as Oakland's researchers expected, are subject to none of the registration, security, shipping or biosafety rules of select agents.
This is a gap in regulation, Ebright said. This incident shows that material that is purportedly inactivated can have viable, recoverable agent. And because there are no regulations, no paper trail, this is a gap through which malicious organizations could obtain select agents without a paper trail and perhaps with serious safety incidents.