Debating New Biosecurity Research Regulations

US Senate consideration of a new biosecurity bill has been delayed to accommodate requests for additional information from the Administration.  The Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 (S.1649), introduced by Senators Lieberman and Collins at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, seeks to overhaul the US response to biosecurity threats.  In particular, the legislation focuses on research into potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

Highly infectious diseases are currently designated as select agents and regulated by the Departments of Agriculture (diseases of plants and livestock) or Health and Human Services (human pathogens).  The new legislation would replace this single list with three “tiers”, and research using the most dangerous agents would be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.  An amendment by Senator Claire McCaskill would allow DHS to shut down labs that do not comply with safety regulations.  However, the bill would also implement so-called personnel reliability programs, common in nuclear research, as a condition for researchers to access the labs.  Recent reports by the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Academies’ Board of Life Sciences did not recommend such measures at this time.

Though Lieberman, who chairs the committee, has made the bill a top priority, it is unclear when time would permit consideration of the legislation on the Senate floor.

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