Preventing Release of Lethal Science; Government Needs Plans for Locking Down Research Sought by Terrorists

Article excerpt

Byline: Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When researchers used federal funding to genetically mutate the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus to make it capable of respiratory transmission between ferrets, the U.S. government was caught flat-footed on how to proceed with this potentially dangerous research. This week, a Senate panel is investigating biological security in the wake of the H5N1 research, with good reason.

Initially, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended against publication of the research. The board initially believed that any benefits from publishing the research were outweighed by the risks that the information could be used as a recipe for terrorists seeking to create biological weapons. But when the National Institutes of Health asked the board to reconvene three weeks later, the NSABB recommended in favor of publication.

Then in a leaked letter, Michael T. Osterholm, a member of NSABB and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, wrote that the decision to reverse its position on the H5N1 studies was based on a biased presentation of the evidence and was a lot less about a robust science and policy-based risk-benefit analysis and more about how to get us out of this difficult situation.

The controversy surrounding the H5N1 study and the criticisms in Mr. Osterholm's letter confirm my suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern - research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused. In the present case, the government presumably did not address the risks of misuse until after the research was submitted for publication. Furthermore, once the NSABB recommended against publication, the government had no mechanism for sharing the research on a limited basis with those researchers with a legitimate need to analyze the results.

On March 1, I wrote to Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John P. Holdren and raised concerns about the U.S. government's policies on potentially dangerous research. A few weeks later, the administration announced a new policy that asked federal agencies to review research they conduct or fund that involves specific pathogens that pose the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with most significant potential for mass casualties.

In his response to my letter, Mr. Holdren cited the new policy as the government's mechanism to identify future research of concern and argued that, until now, the government has not needed to have a system in place for restricting dissemination of dual use research because this is the first time the NSABB recommended restricting publication. …