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Project on Government Oversight


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Biodefense: A plague of researchers
June 1, 2005 

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Biologist Critiques Biodefense Safety

April 27, 2005 


 POGO has made available a recent presentation on concerns with the current state of America ’s biodefense program.  The slides were created by Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard H. Ebright and were part of a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies/Howard Hughes Medical Institute Briefing on Biodefense in Washington , DC on April 15, 2005 .  In general, Ebright finds that the current biodefense program delivers “minimal biodefense bang for biodefense buck” and it offers a “20-fold increase in safety, security, and dual-use concerns.”

According to Ebright:

“The simplest, most likely, path for a sub-state adversary, such as Al Qaeda, to acquire bioweapons capability is to obtain bioweapons agents and training by penetration of a bioweapons-agents research project in a U.S. laboratory. One well-placed graduate student, post-doctoral fellow, or technician. No cost (salary being provided courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer). No risk. No difficulty.”

Ebright’s presentation is based on analysis of the

  • Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002 (PL 107-188; effective 6/02)

  • Department of Health and Human Service’s Interim Final Rule on Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents (CFR 42 part 73; effective 2/03)

  • Department of Health and Human Service’s Final Rule on Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents (CFR 42 parts 72-73; effective 4/05)

    He notes these specific safety and security regulatory lapses, among others:

    • There are “no universally applicable federal guidelines” for oversight of biodefense research safety;

    • There are “no specific requirements apart from requirement for lock on door” in the final rule;

    • There are “no specific requirements for multi-level access control, for security personnel, or for video surveillance” in the final rule;

    • There is “no requirement for exclusion of non-screened persons from laboratory” in the final rule;

    • There is minimal “personnel screening (database search only--watch-list, immigration, criminal, mental-health, and military-service records)” for potential  biodefense researchers;

    • There are “insufficient requirements for transportation security” of select agents;

    • And there is “insufficient coordination with state and local governments” inhibiting adequate response in the event of attacks or accidents.

    Ebright recommends:

    •  “Legislation to establish universally applicable, mandatory local-level review [along lines of Institutional Review Board system, rather than the ineffective Institutional Biosafety Committee system]”;

    • “Rulemaking or legislation to address coverage and security gaps legislation to address coordination gaps”;

    • “Rulemaking or legislation to establish mandatory national-level review of National Academies of Science experiments of concern involving select agents (e.g., by adding NAS experiments of concern to list of restricted experiments in amendment to Final Rule on Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents)”;

    • “Legislation to establish mandatory local-level review of NAS experiments of concern involving any biological agent.”

    Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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