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Last Updated

20 Nov 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2002.


A Handle on Deadly 'Bugs'

Bioweapons researcher Steven J. Hatfill is being treated like a suspect as the FBI very publicly searches his home and hunts for anthrax connections. The agency has not shown any hard evidence against Hatfill in connection with last fall's attacks, and the case has taken on a tinge of persecution.

It's too bad, because the controversy is smothering a broader issue--the government's need to get a better handle on which U.S. scientists handle and possess potentially lethal biological and chemical agents.

Two months ago, President Bush signed regulations requiring university and other research labs, scientists and drug manufacturers to tell federal authorities whether they possess any of 36 pathogens, including anthrax and the Ebola virus, that can be used to make biological weapons.

The rules also impose tighter controls on who handles potential bioweapons materials. For particularly deadly bugs, scientists would have to undergo criminal background checks -- hardly a huge burden, given that even school bus drivers are checked before they're hired.

Some university officials and influential scientists are lobbying the Bush administration and Congress to water down the rules or at least postpone their Sept. 10 implementation date.

On one point they are right: Enforcers should carefully balance national security with the freedoms of medical research.

One rule, for instance, would bar scientists from working with "potentially dangerous" agents at home. Not all scientists stop working at 5 p.m., and one man's danger could be another man's discovery.

Bush officials may also want to reconsider barring people with drug convictions or a history of mental illness from possessing the pathogens on the list. Many of history's brilliant scientists have wrestled with drug use or mental illness. Charles Darwin frequently talked back to voices in his head. "A Beautiful Mind" mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. is schizophrenic.

An equally tough question is cost. For instance, should the government pay $280,000 a year for cameras and watchers at a biology lab that is receiving a $48,000 grant?

And what about that list of 36 pathogens? Should the common flu virus be added, now that a study has shown that it can easily be made deadly by tweaking its genes?

Even with all the questions, Bush officials should carefully begin enforcing the rules Sept. 10. These precautions were overdue even when Congress proposed them in November, and it will take a long time to get them fully in place.

The FBI's obsessive concern with Hatfill may or may not be justified. But there is no question that the government needs to get a better idea of where certain pathogens are and who controls them.