Bill would help government keep tabs on toxic agents

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

... The FBI's failure to locate every lunatic who tries to cook up anthrax in a Baghdad bathtub is forgivable. But its inability after an intense, monthlong investigation to get even an inkling of which U.S. labs have pathogens such as smallpox and anthrax exposes an inexcusable lapse in oversight that has put the nation at risk.

The failure may be less the agency's than Congress'. While legislators have passed bills requiring everyone from hazardous-material truckers to school bus drivers to submit to criminal background checks, they have imposed no such requirement on scientists who routinely handle the most virulent biological toxins. No special certification is required to possess these agents, no government office keeps track of labs that stockpile them and no one vets their scientists.

On Nov. 7, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill to close those loopholes. The bill identifies the 32 most toxic biological agents ... and prohibits ordinary Americans from stockpiling them. It requires the secretary of Health and Human Services to authorize private and public labs wishing to experiment with the toxic agents, compels labs to report which ones they are stockpiling, and demands that researchers handling them pass a criminal background check.

Academics defeated an attempt by the Clinton administration to pass similar legislation two years ago. They worry that overly zealous federal restrictions will scare scientists away from experimenting with bioagents at the very time when scientific expertise is most critical to national defense. ... Ronald Atlas, president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology, fretted that (Feinstein's) bill ''will cause some heartburn for some university administrators.''

Let their stomachs rumble.

-- Los Angeles Times

Nov. 11

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