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Senate Considers Bill That Requires Study of Biodefense Labs

July 2, 2008

By Justin M. Palk, The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Jun. 30–The U.S. Senate is considering legislation aimed at improving oversight of laboratories that handle dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, smallpox and anthrax.

The Select Agent Program and Biosafety Program Improvement Act of 2008, introduced by Senators Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would reauthorize the Select Agent Program, which expired in late 2007.

Administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the program regulates the possession, use and transfer of more than 70 agents and toxins that could pose a threat to public health and safety. The CDC supports the program’s reauthorization and will work with the committee, but has no specific comment on the legislation at this time, said Von Roebuck, a CDC spokesman.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick works with select agents, but through a spokeswoman, USAMRIID declined to comment about either its experience with the program to date or the new legislation.

The new legislation would require a number of studies, including a National Academy of Sciences review of whether the Select Agent Program has made the country safer, and what effect it has had on international scientific collaboration. It would also require the secretaries of Health and Human Services, Defense and Homeland Security to study whether the nation’s lab infrastructure is sufficient for biodefense research, how to best share lab space and information across the biodefense and infectious diseases research communities, and how to improve training for lab personnel.

The new legislation would also allow the federal government to share information on individuals and labs certified to handle select agents with state health officials, so long as they had laws in place prohibiting the further release of that information.

The legislation has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which Kennedy chairs.

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