It's impossible to miss the note of fear in the voices
of prominent American bio-scientists. Laws rushed onto the books after 9/11 introduced new criminal penalties for improper handling of potential bioweapon materials, and the first prosecutions have made it clear that the feds mean business. Section 175 of the USA Patriot Act, which sailed through Congress during the height of the postal anthrax terror, applies to anyone working with, storing, or transporting some 60 "select agents." The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 piled on more fines and more jail time.
Of course, anything to do with bioweapons can strike fear in the average American, who might reasonably expect that the government would ratchet up penalties for careless handling of controlled materials in the age of al Qaeda. Problem is, the select agents list covers a broad array of microbes and toxins of longstanding interest to medical researchers looking for vaccines, cures or antitoxins. The list includes the Ebola, yellow fever and Marburg viruses; anthrax and brucellosis-causing bacteria; food-borne aflatoxins and botulinum toxin, as well as ricin, the castor-bean-derived toxin whose manufacture in a north London flat led to several arrests in January; and a lot more. All are causes of human and animal disease, and research work requires that the toxic materials themselves be widely held. Samples can be found in more than a thousand science and medical labs across the country. Hence, there are a lot of scientists who feel newly exposed to a risk of inadvertently making a now-criminal error. One side effect of tougher laws could be a reduction in the amount of materials available for necessary research -- and thus a reduction in the amount of research -- nationwide.
"In scientific research," says Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology, which represents more than 42,000 members, "we're used to regulations that stipulate you have 30 days to correct a situation, not years in jail."
Well, we all live in a more dangerous world. The legislation is not intended to prevent research, and specifically exempts "prophylactic, protective, bona fide research or other peaceful purposes." So it might be easy to dismiss fears of the legislation as overblown, until you consider the ordeal of the first researcher to fall afoul of the Patriot Act. In November 2001, FBI agents visiting a University of Connecticut pathology lab found two vials marked "anthrax" in the freezer of graduate student Tom Foral. The anthrax-laced tissue samples came from the necropsy of a cow that had died of natural anthrax years earlier. Foral had saved them, along with an assortment of other pathology specimens, after a professor asked him to clear out a malfunctioning storage freezer. Foral says he had taken "clear out" to mean "save what you can use and destroy the rest." His professor told the FBI that he assumed Foral had destroyed everything. Foral's frozen, unprocessed specimens posed no direct health threat, though someone could have cultured anthrax from the contaminated tissue and blood.