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Last Updated

10 Jan 2003

Source:  Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2003


U.S. May Classify Some Data On Disease Due to Terror Fears


With germs looming as potential weapons of mass destruction, biomedical scientists can expect some federally funded projects to become classified under national-security law, a White House science aide warned.

Such restrictions, historically more common to nuclear research, now apply equally to disease research, said John Marburger, director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy, addressing a meeting on science and security at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Under the law, researchers applying for federal grants would be notified upon approval of funding if their projects are classified, meaning the results can't be shared or published.

Balancing national security with the freedom to share research results will be tough, Mr. Marburger said. Of greatest concern is how to handle new research on deadly bacteria and viruses. Much basic research has therapeutic applications leading to new vaccines or drugs, but can also be diverted into germ weaponry.

Ron Atlas, head of the American Society of Microbiology, issued a plea against scientific censorship. Still, he and others have been haunted since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by potential misuse of medical discoveries.

"Every time we move toward a cure or identify a gene, we give information to terrorists," Dr. Atlas said at a biosecurity meeting in November in Las Vegas. "I don't know where we'll end up," he said. "Everything tears at our fundamental values."

Still, putting disease data in terrorist hands is unthinkable, said Gary Fleisher, a professor at Harvard Medical School. "I don't think anyone would say during World War II that we should have published information on the atomic bomb so the Nazis could use it. We are at war. [Terrorists] will use it to kill Americans."

Unusual scrutiny of people in biomedical circles already is taking place. Dr. Atlas said he gave a list of the microbiology society's 42,000 members to the Federal Bureau of Investigation during its anthrax probe, but wouldn't supply other information without a subpoena. At Biosecurity 2002, the November meeting hosted by Harvard in Las Vegas, sponsors sought an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent's help in "surveillance" of the list of attendees, said Miles Shore, a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Screening was done to allay fears that "someone with evil intent would sign up for the meeting" to hijack data for weapons or to attack the meeting itself.