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Fed panel wants more scrutiny of biolab workers
By DAVID DISHNEAU Associated Press Writer

Posted: Monday, Jan. 11, 2010
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HAGERSTOWN, Md. A federal panel has recommended that researchers who work with the world�s deadliest pathogens undergo more frequent security screening. The Working Group on Strengthening the Biosecurity of the United States also suggested random drug tests and closer monitoring of the physical and mental health of those with access to dangerous pathogens. And it recommended tighter scrutiny of foreign nationals who work in U.S. labs.

President George W. Bush's administration ordered the report after the FBI concluded an Army scientist was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people. Its recommendations will be considered by lawmakers and federal regulators seeking to improve the safety of labs that handle dangerous germs and toxins. The report was published Friday. The panel, co-chaired by federal defense and health officials, wrote that the anthrax-filled envelopes allegedly mailed by Army anthrax researcher Bruce E. Ivins were "the most visible manifestation" of an insider threat. Investigators say Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008 before he could be charged, had been prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs between 2000 and 2006. Yet it wasn't until November 2007, after the FBI raided his home, that his laboratory access was revoked.

The panel recommended that those who work with dangerous pathogens undergo a security risk assessment every three years instead of every five, the current standard. The assessment should include certain mental health indicators that the FBI currently is prohibited from using in such reviews, the panel said.

Jean L. Patterson, chairwoman of the Department of Virology & Immunology at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, said Monday that some of the recommendations could deter talented, responsible scientists from U.S. lab work and dull the nation's competitive edge. "We need people doing countermeasures work in this country and if they find that it's too onerous and the rules aren't clear-cut, people might be reluctant to do it," Patterson said.