Sandia LabNews

Sandians propose plan to simplify security measures for bioresearch

Sandians propose plan to simplify security measures for bioresearch

One-size-fits-all federal regulations locked into place at the nation’s biological laboratories to improve security against terrorism after 9/11 may be impeding useful biodefense and public health research, say Sandia researchers Jennifer Gaudioso and Reynolds Salerno (both 6928) in a paper published in the April 30 Science.

The terrorism threat is real, but most experts would agree that Rocky Mountain

Spotted Fever presents less danger as a biological weapon than anthrax, write the authors. However, current regulations require the same security measures for both.

Among the problems, the writers suggest, is the proposition that any biological agent or toxin on the regulated list requires security, while those not on the list need none.

The researchers suggest instead a security risk assessment procedure that would place pathogens and toxins in one of four biosecurity levels, similar to a color-coding system. The overwhelming majority of pathogens would fall into the low-risk category, requiring procedures as minimal as locking doors. Most of the commonly dangerous agents would land in the moderate risk category, requiring access controls and personnel checks. Already-in-place biosafety measures would keep costs down.

By this process, "high risk" or "extreme risk" — the two top categories — would be limited to the very few organisms that represent true weapon threats. Only labs working with those organisms would be subject to the extra expense in security these agents would require.

This graded response, the authors feel, "would remove the ambiguity of the current regulatory approach and facilitate continued biomedical and bioscience research."

They note that the expense of the "black-and-white" approach has led to a sharp decline in laboratories registering to do work on threatening biological organisms of every stripe.

The Center for Disease Control expected 817 labs to register to examine and control regulated biological agents; instead, only 323 facilities registered.

"Actions such as these [responses to undifferentiated regulations]," write the authors, "will suffocate valuable public health and biodefense research, which will further compromise our ability to respond to bioterrorism and infectious disease outbreaks."

Jen and Ren are staff members of Sandia’s Chem-Bio Nonproliferation Department who work to secure dangerous pathogens and toxins against theft and sabotage. They have worked on biosecurity issues at many federal facilities.