August 2010

Re-examining Biosecurity

The bill would create a Tier 1 category of select agents and toxins and put the Department of Homeland Security in charge of inspections of Tier 1 agent laboratories to ensure compliance with security standards.

But, not all senators were convinced by the bill’s approach. During subsequent hearings on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, U.S. Sens.Carl Levin, D-Mich., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, questioned the increased role of the Department of Homeland Security and a system of overlapping regulations.

Saying the bill was in conflict with the commission’s recommendations, Levin cited letters from a number of scientific societies, including the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, expressing their concerns about the effects of new regulations on research.

Against the vocal objections of Levin, the Senate committee passed Lieberman and Collins’ bill. However, Lieberman acknowledged that it is unlikely to be considered by the full U.S. Senate.

Since the Senate bill’s passage, the House Committee on Homeland Security passed a similar bill. Introduced by U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., and Peter T. King, R-N.Y., the House version diminishes the role of DHS, giving HHS and the USDA the authority to conduct inspections of laboratories while coordinating simultaneous lab inspections and creating common inspection procedures.

An Executive Order

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Not waiting for the outcome of a potentially lengthy and uncertain legislative process, on July 2, Obama issued an executive order to address many of the WMD Commission and Working Group recommendations.

The resulting executive order likely is to take some of the momentum away from biosecurity legislation in Congress. Following the Working Group’s recommendations, it creates different categories of select agents.

The executive order also directs HHS and the USDA to consider “reducing the number of agents and toxins on the select agent list” while working to coordinate inspections and oversight of select agent labs. It will be some time before scientists know exactly how the executive order will affect their research. But, there is hope that tiering and shrinking the select agents list while coordinating regulations and inspections may help to reduce the burden that many labs face.

Kyle M. Brown ( is an ASBMB science policy fellow.


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