Posted by: genomescience | February 23, 2011

Biosecurity Plenary Session: AAAS 2011 General Mtg

AAAS 2011 Annual Meeting News

 

News: AAAS 2011 Annual Meeting News

Research Responsibility Is Best Defense Against Biothreats, Experts Say at AAAS

 Ten years after the anthrax attacks that killed five Americans, researchers say a “culture of responsibility” among scientists may be the most effective way to prevent a future biological attack.

 Scientists welcome their collaborations with the federal government to ensure lab safety, and they say they have made strides in screening the lab workers who handle the most deadly bacteria and viruses. But a panel of prominent researchers at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting said there is also a danger that burdensome regulations could discourage promising young scientists from working with these biological agents.

 “The best and the brightest that you want have a lot of other opportunities,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases. “You don’t want to give them too much of a reason to walk away from you.”

 The meeting’s plenary discussion on biosecurity came less than a week after the National Research Council released a long-awaited report evaluating the science behind the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s analyses in the 2001 anthrax attacks. The report concluded that the FBI’s analysis could not conclusively link anthrax spores from the lab flask of U.S. Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins, the FBI’s main suspect in the attacks before suicide in 2008, to the spores used in 2001.

In a video prepared for the plenary discussion, U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) praised the National Research Council’s review of the FBI science, but said “a lot of questions are still unanswered.”

Holt, the recipient of the 2010 AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Award, introduced a bill on 15 February to probe the attacks further. Modeled on the work of the 9/11 Commission, Holt said, the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act would examine the federal government’s response to the anthrax mailings and make recommendations to prepare for future biological strikes.

The plenary panelists, along with moderator Jeanne Guillemin of the MIT Security Studies Program, agreed that the anthrax investigation—the science part, at least—would unfold much differently now than a decade ago. For instance, researchers then had only 40 pathogen genomes to compare to the anthrax strain, unlike the thousands of genomes available today. Current sequencing technology makes it possible to analyze a bacterial genome in hours or days, compared to the months it took in 2001.

 There has also been a construction boom in biocontainment labs, said Claire Fraser-Liggett, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences; 14,000 people now work in more than 1300 of these labs across the country. The labs hold about 82 bacteria and viruses that are listed as select agents—organisms considered potentially dangerous to human health.

Fraser-Liggett’s lab worked on the samples of anthrax from the 2001 attacks, and she has been a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity since it was formed in 2004. In her work with the advisory board, she was surprised to find that there was little evidence showing whether psychological evaluations, medical exams, and similar tests are useful in screening lab workers.

The advisory board’s conversations with scientists, Fraser-Liggett said, show that “engaged leadership at the institutional level and at the laboratory level” is the most effective way to prevent a lab worker from making a careless mistake or deliberately releasing a dangerous pathogen.

“The bottom line,” Fauci agreed, “is always the development of a culture of responsibility by the scientists involved.”

The threats posed by naturally emerging pathogens such as HIV or the SARS virus, or re-emerging pathogens such as drug-resistant staph infections or malaria, “have a much greater chance of impacting society” than deliberately released pathogens, Fauci said.

The good news, he noted, is that broad investments in vaccines, medicines, and prevention programs could be used equally against natural and deliberate disease outbreaks.

 Scientists have been working safely with harmful bacteria and viruses for nearly 100 years, and theft, loss, and release of these pathogens has been “exceedingly rare,” said Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We have had an extraordinary record of safe research and productive items from research,” she said, “and we need to use our common sense as well as our rigor in this 21st century to address pathogens and the potential hazards they pose to the national security.”

Becky Ham, AAAS

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