Campus labs eyed after anthrax scare
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But UTMB is excited to be the first on its list. College officials are also anxious to find out how last month's passage of the Patriot's Act will affect their work with certain "select agents," as determined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).Skip to next paragraph
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"I don't think anybody has a clear idea how this new legislation will affect us," says Stanley Lemon, the school's dean of medicine.
The university will break ground in January on a "level 4" lab - the highest biosafety classification with the tightest security. It will be the first such lab at a US university, allowing researchers to work with previously off-limits microbes.
That may be one of the reasons the Office of the Inspector General chose to come to UTMB first. But at a time when the government is moving to clamp down on the free-flow of information, the university insists that keeping open their research findings is critical to the solution.
"The whole notion of a university is the free exchange of information and intellectual interchange," says Lemon.
There have been times in the past that universities have worked with the government to create weapons - and, thus, had to keep quiet about their research and findings. But this is a different scenario: More information means less danger, says Adrian Perachio, UTMB's vice president for research.
"The more people know about our ability to defend ourselves from such a threat, the less attractive we will make it to potential terrorists," he says.
Prior to 1996, the ability to obtain some of the most deadly microbes was relatively easy. That was proved when an Ohio State student affiliated with a white supremacist group used fake letterhead to obtain the bacterium that causes the plague.
He was arrested and charged with mail fraud because there was no law to charge him for possession of such a substance. So Congress enacted the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act, which says that anyone sending or receiving dangerous microbes must register with the CDC and prove a legitimate scientific reason for working with it.
But some believe there are still holes in the law that need to be closed - and many expect that they will be.
"There's a steep learning curve right now," says Dr. Perachio. "Is there something we haven't thought about? Well, we've never found ourselves in this state of affairs before."
Part of the problem, say experts, is that each lab works differently and independently. So the Association of Public Health Laboratories is urging Congress to consider five new steps, including a better communications network and better tracking system, increased staffing, improved facilities, and updated equipment. All of this takes money, though.
"For years and years and years, the nation did not see the need to spend money on these labs, until recently," says Mr. Becker.
Last year, the CDC funneled $8.3 million to state labs for biological terrorism. After the anthrax scare, they earmarked $28 million for labs in 2002. But Becker and his group believe that's still not enough. They think proper funding - for increased security and updated equipment - is more like $125 million.