HHS frames dual-use biosecurity oversight

The Health and Human Services Department will lead a governmentwide effort to improve oversight of legitimate biological research that could be misused to threaten public health or national security. It follows other federal initiatives to block the use of biological agents as terrorist weapons.

Secretary Tommy Thompson yesterday announced the creation of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which will recommend guidelines for federally funded life sciences research that could have a dual use, such as development of vaccines or viruses to attack cancer cells. The National Institutes of Health, an HHS agency, will manage the board and its online presence.

'We're going to advance security by reducing the risk that government-funded research could end up helping terrorists,' Thompson said. 'The very same tools developed to better the condition of humankind can also be used for its destruction.' At the same time, however, 'We must protect our open process of scientific discovery that has been the linchpin of our research success,' he said.

The board will begin work this summer on specific oversight strategies for federally conducted or supported potential dual-use biological research while taking into consideration national security and the needs of the research community. Those strategies could conceivably include mandatory training or IT systems for collecting data, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

'The fundamental philosophy is not to try to stop the bad guys from doing what they're going to do, because they're going to do that anyway,' Fauci said. 'It's to keep the good guys from inadvertently falling into a situation where they need advice on where to go on an experiment they want to do or because of an unexpected result of an experiment. The body will advise their institutional biosafety committee to help them when they get to that point.'

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni cited examples of research that raises dual-use concerns, such as engineering of the mousepox virus in Australia, synthesis of the polio virus or potential re-engineering of viruses for harmful effects.

The board is part of a long-term process of outreach to domestic and international scientists, said John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 'It is imperative that we develop this new framework to address serious concerns that range from personal responsibility to national security,' he said. The guidelines should allow unrelated research to proceed without impediment and research that is of concern to proceed within well-defined parameters, he said.

High on the agenda is a code of conduct for life scientists and laboratory workers. 'It is intended more to develop best practices, not to be a Big Brother,' Marburger said. The board will work with journal editors to set guidelines for publication of potentially sensitive life sciences research.

The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences highlighted the need for more bioscience oversight in its report, "Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma."

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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