Wednesday, May 12, 2010

biosecurity laws hobble research

Video - Director K-State National Agricultural Biosecurity Center.

The Scientist | Ever since the U.S. government has taken steps to protect and encourage research involving pathogens that could be used as biological weapons, that research has become much less efficient, according to a new analysis.

Though funding for research on so-called "select agents," or pathogens that can be used as weapons, has shot through the roof, and the number of papers using those organisms has risen in recent years, the work has become up to five times less efficient -- meaning, the same amount of funding produces fewer papers than it did before.

"The price of the research was multiplied by maybe a factor of 5 for anthrax and maybe a factor of 2 for Ebola," said Carnegie Mellon University associate professor Elizabeth Casman, who led an analysis of the select agent literature that is published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Casman told The Scientist that her group found, for example, that prior to 2002, an average of 17 papers on anthrax were published for every $1 million of funding, whereas after 2002, that average dropped to 3.

At issue, according to the analysis, are two laws designed to regulate select agent research: the PATRIOT Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, enacted in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

The laws' new regulations govern the exhaustive documentation of the transportation, guarding, and use of select agents. As a result, they are burying researchers studying select agents with administrative duties, Casman noted. Researchers to whom Casman spoke "all complained of the paperwork," she said. "A lot of it, they just find overwhelming."

Some researchers told Casman that their work took twice as long to carry out because of all the paperwork related to select agents, and that money was being diverted from research expenses to pay for things like security cameras, hiring guards, and building walls. "It's expensive to comply with the regulations," Casman said.