Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fin d'Siecle Governance Issues

The US Senate yesterday introduced 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. 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 Congressional hearing on biosafety held last October. Finally, it gives state governments access to select agent registration information.

Gigi Gronvall 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."

Senate tweeks bioterror regs - The Scientist NewsBlog.