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Last Updated

17 Dec 2002

Source: New York Times, December 17, 2002.


After 9/11, Universities Are Destroying Biological Agents


WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 As federal officials search for more powerful tools to investigate biological terrorism, universities across the country are destroying collections of laboratory agents crucial for understanding how biological weapons work and tracing their sources.

New federal laws require only that such biological materials be registered, but many universities are pressing researchers to clean out their freezers and destroy materials they are not currently working on.

While there is no official count of how many biological specimens have been destroyed, concern that laboratories have gone overboard prompted the White House to ask institutions, through the American Society of Microbiologists, to reconsider their haste in doing away with specimens that could prove "difficult or impossible to replace," said Rachel Levinson, of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy.

"Obviously, these materials are valuable as research tools, and in terms of developing countermeasures should these agents be used as weapons, or if there's an unintentional natural outbreak," Dr. Levinson said. "They're valuable research tools, and we would not like to see them destroyed."

Under laws enacted since last year's anthrax mailings, which killed five people, research institutions, clinical and diagnostic laboratories must inventory and register the presence of 61 select agents that could be used to make biological weapons, including ebola, herpes B, smallpox and a variety of toxins. The materials must be kept under lock and key, with access to them restricted to people cleared by government background checks. Scientists must also demonstrate a "bona fide research purpose" for working with a given material.

The problem appears to lie in conflicting messages from Washington and in overly zealous compliance with the new laws on select agents, said Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society of Microbiologists. The prosecution of Tomas Foral, a University of Connecticut scientist arrested after he pocketed an anthrax specimen in cleaning out a laboratory freezer, caused many researchers to think twice, Dr. Atlas recalled.

"Many say Tomas Foral at Connecticut was a clear message from the Justice Department to the scientific community: If you can't justify having it, clear it out," Dr. Atlas said. "When you have these criminal penalties hanging over your head, you ask, `Why should I be the one to bear that legal risk?' "

The most spectacular example of the wholesale destruction of specimens came last year, when Iowa State University at Ames destroyed its entire collection of anthrax specimens. The university acted after an Ames strain was tied to the fatal anthrax letters, and with the criminal investigation in full swing.

John McCarroll, a spokesman for Iowa State, said copies of the anthrax strains that were destroyed existed elsewhere, but other scientists disagree. They maintain that recent advances in genetic engineering have shown that families of strains that appeared the same were, on closer inspection, quite different. Mr. McCarroll said that more recently, Iowa State had asked researchers to destroy select agents that they were not "currently working on."

Few universities have gone so far as to order the elimination of specimens outright. Rather, in conducting inventories of biological agents, most have urged researchers to consider seriously, and justify, their need for sensitive materials. Some describe the procedure as good "housekeeping," saying as a matter of principle, dangerous materials not immediately needed should be discarded.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the new laws on select agents has prompted not just housekeeping, but also soul searching, said Matthew Finucane, director of environmental health and radiation safety.

"If they don't have a mission for the material, people are disposing of it," Mr. Finucane said.

At Duke University, the discovery of a select agent was grounds for an "internal audit," said Wayne Thomann, the university's director of occupational and environmental health. If they were "historical stocks" and researchers could not come up with a current need for the agents, Mr. Thomann said, "we went through a process of controlled destruction."

"I can't give any exact numbers," he said, "but it was a fair number that decided there wasn't a real research benefit in maintaining this stuff."

Harvard University did not suggest researchers destroy agents, but R. John Collier, a biochemist who works on anthrax there, said he had taken it upon himself last year to destroy the only strain he had on hand "to avoid attracting terrorists and more of the press than I wanted."

But policies that make sense in other contexts, like discarding old samples, are madness when it comes to scientific research, said Steven Block, a physics and biology professor at Stanford University.

Dr. Block said past strains of anthrax were essential for understanding how quickly an organism altered itself in nature.

"So much you can learn by knowing the evolutionary biology of bacteria," he said, "but you can't research that evolutionary biology if you can't look at the past versions of it. It's the connectedness of all this that's so important."

Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Immunopathogenesis and Infectious Diseases at Columbia University, said, "What you're discarding is access to materials and intellectual property you may need downstream."

Dr. Lipkin is investigating what causes diseases like autism and cancer, and relies on comparing genetic sequences in as many specimens as possible. "This will definitely interfere with our work," he said.

He noted that in the 1990's accusations arose that American scientists had introduced the AIDS virus, H.I.V., to Africa through earlier research infecting monkeys with polio. The scientific community was only able to disprove the theory conclusively by turning over the 40-year-old cells for independent scrutiny.

Dr. Levinson, at the White House, said that if institutions really felt intimidated by the new rules, they should transfer the materials to a laboratory willing to accept them.

Others have said the administration should have created such a repository to accept materials that laboratories felt compelled to discard. And many fear that it may take time to repair the harm that is being done.

"I would hope that we could recover from any deleterious effect in the long run," said Barbara Johnson, president of the American Society of Biological Safety. "But if you had a unique sample that no one had replicates of, that sample's gone."