Friday, April 29, 2005

Now till Doomsday

The race to build "high containment" laboratories in universities to take advantage of burgeoning research funding for "select agent" organisms (potential biowarfare agents) is heating up, but the scrutiny over their operation is ice cold. Edward Hammond, Director of the Sunshine Project, has been trying to get the minutes supposedly kept by all Institutional Biosafety Committees and has met with either stonewalling or few results. Many IBCs, it seems, conduct their required meetings to "review" safety protocols entirely by email or telephone (and I have more than some suspicion that without a paper trail, some don't "review" at all).

IBCs go back to the mid 1970s when scientist-activists raised concerns about possible health and environmental consequences of recombinant DNA research. Guidelines, contained in a 130 page NIH document set out safe practices and protocols. IBCs must be registered with NIH and file annual reports. An excellent article by Kelly Field in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required, alas) notes that when IBCs in institutions with research grants from NIH don't hold face to face meetings and keep minutes of their deliberations and decisions, they are in violation of these federal guidelines. Both NIH and the institutions acknowledge there is widespread violation of the requirement, but with one rather unusual (and probably unique) exception, no institution has been penalized or censured.

Now the IBCs, who have done such an outstandingly bad job with the task at hand, are being asked to take on another: reviewing "dual use" research, that is, work that might be used to harm or for warfare:
. . . [I]n 2003 a National Academy of Sciences panel recommended making the IBC system "the first review tier for experiments of concern." Such experiments would include studies designed to create vaccine-resistant microbes, enhance the virulence of a pathogen, or "weaponize" a biological agent or toxin. It also proposed a new national advisory board to provide general guidance and case-specific advice to the biosafety committees (Kelly Field in The Chronicle)
Whoa, there. Wait a minute! What's the "other" use in these kinds of "dual use" experiments? Maybe there are some legitimate uses, here, but they would be very rare and everyone should know when this kind of work is being done. And how would you tell them from offensive weapons work? The very fact routine IBCs would be charged with reviewing this kind of research suggests it might be considerably more common than would be expected in a country that is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention (although we won't permit inspections). This is just the kind of activity that is encouraged the Bush/Republican/Joe Lieberman skunk world of biodefense initiatives.

This work is being spun as public health-oriented research on "emerging infectious diseases." And that the phantom IBCs are adequate oversight.

They'll probably keep telling us this from Now till Doomsday.