Campus labs eyed after anthrax scare
Every day, researchers here at the University of Texas Medical Branch reach into freezers filled with some of the world's deadliest viruses and bacteria.Skip to next paragraph
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The scientists are renowned for trying to develop cures for some of the most feared diseases - encephalitis, yellow fever, the plague.
Since Sept. 11, however, what goes on in the beakers and petri dishes here and at other university labs is of more than just medical curiosity. It could well impact national security.
The anthrax attacks, in particular, have suddenly brought a new level of oversight and scrutiny to an area that has largely operated in anonymity. Indeed, what has emerged in recent weeks is a portrait of a research structure about which relatively little is known - and seemingly open to easy misuse.
Now Congress wants to find out exactly what goes on behind those locked laboratory doors on campus - and do whatever it can to keep the microbes and spores from falling into the wrong hands. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, or UTMB, will be the first university laboratory in the nation to be inspected by the Office of the Inspector General at the US Department of Health and Human Services. A group will arrive Tuesday and plans to spend up to four weeks learning just how secure the facility really is.
Because it is still unknown where the anthrax-laced letters came from, it's hard to say what went wrong. But the investigation has revealed how little the government knows about the nation's research establishment.
Officials know, for instance, that there are hundreds of labs with anthrax cultures in universities, private facilities, and public-health agencies. But they don't know the exact number because they don't keep an inventory.
At present, roughly 250 university laboratories are registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research on some 30 viruses and bacteria defined as "select agents" - anthrax, the Ebola virus, and smallpox, among others. Of those, an estimated 20 to 30 are believed to be studying anthrax.
What gaps in knowledge remain are likely to be filled in soon, and procedures tightened surrounding the study of microbes that can be used as bioterrorist weapons. Since the first anthrax death in October, "there has been a lot of looking into freezers and seeing what's in there," says Scott Becker, head of the Association of Public Health Laboratories in Washington.
He says many state health agencies received a wake-up call about how vulnerability the US is to a biological outbreak, when a strain of the African West Nile Virus showed up in the eastern United States in 1999. It has been linked to at least seven deaths in the New York area. Many labs began reevaluating their capabilities and realized they would be lacking if a major outbreak occurred.
But it took the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax deaths to shake Congress into action. The Office of the Inspector General will not confirm nor deny that it will be touring UTMB, or any other campus for that matter, saying such an issue is a matter of national security.