Labs urged to pre-empt bioterrorism threat

Washington

An initiative is under way to get biotechnology companies to reduce the risks that their staff or labs could nurture bioterrorism — either by accident or by design.

Two non-profit groups, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, announced the initiative in Washington on 20 February.

They are hoping that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will voluntarily join a scheme to prevent the misuse of tools at their researchers' disposal.

Michael Moodie, president of the arms control institute, and IISS president Terence Taylor are drawing up a charter for companies to sign certifying that they have taken steps to address bioterrorism risks. They also plan to bring industry leaders, academic scientists and government officials together at forums to discuss the issue.

Taylor says that the initiative is inspired by a report released last October by a National Academy of Sciences panel. The panel, chaired by Gerald Fink, a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recommended steps to prevent the misuse of biological knowledge (see Nature 425, 647; 2003). The Bush administration initially said that it would respond to the report within a month, but hasn't yet done so.

Government officials welcomed Taylor and Moodie's plan, saying that they have few mechanisms for keeping track of drug-industry labs. “Now that the biological weapons protocol is dead, we have no interactions with those communities,” says Jennie Gromoll, an official handling biological weapons issues at the state department.

Others cautioned that it might be difficult for the initiative to draw a response from the private sector. Eileen Choffnes, an arms-control expert at the national academy, says that many companies aren't convinced that their work could contribute to bioterrorism. “Unless you can define the problem with objective evidence, many people are just going to go through the motions,” she says.

Una Ryan, chief executive of Avant in Needham, Massachusetts, which is working on developing an anthrax vaccine, supports the move “because there's no agency constantly monitoring the situation”.

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Check, E. Labs urged to pre-empt bioterrorism threat. Nature 427, 767 (2004) doi:10.1038/427767a

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