Bioterror rules spur U tally

Dan Haugen

;Following a string of suspicious anthrax infections months earlier, President George W. Bush in June signed legislation requiring all parties in possession of certain biological agents or toxins to register them with the federal government.

Those agents and toxins are outlined in two lists assembled by the federal health and human services and agriculture departments. The first contains substances that could pose a bioterrorism threat to humans and the latter focuses on those that could threaten agriculture.

“These are the classic agents that could in some way cause serious human or domestic animal disease,” said Michael Osterholm, University epidemiology professor and bioterrorism adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He said the government policy is aimed at striking a balance.

“The goal is to make certain that individuals who might use biological agents as weapons do not get their hands on those agents, and at the same time, to in no way impede on legitimate and important scientific research,” Osterholm said.

“There is no perfect answer,” he added.

The information collected by the government will be cross-checked with criminal, immigration and intelligence records and used to maintain a top-secret database to track the whereabouts of the nation’s most dangerous biological agents.

Universities are the most frequent possessors of the items listed, Osterholm said. Several University researchers received disclosure forms in the mail over the summer, but the school decided to respond as an institution, said Dick Bianco, assistant vice-president for regulatory affairs.

Bianco estimated the new rules affect fewer than two dozen researchers at the University, most of whom work in the Academic Health Center. Regardless, he said, the University’s environmental health and safety department considers this an opportunity to inventory every laboratory on campus. They’ve already cataloged all areas known to contain high-risk materials, and remaining research labs should be completed by December. As employees search for potentially dangerous substances, they’re also making sure labs are up to code with other safety and workplace regulations.

“We’ve been working on this for quite a while, and we have a pretty good handle of what our faculty is working with,” Bianco said.

The importance of knowing exactly what researchers have was accentuated last month when a sample of bacteria that could be deadly to pigs disappeared from a laboratory at Michigan State University. The FBI is investigating the apparent theft, although school officials say a terrorism connection is doubtful.

University senior public health specialist Jim Lauer said such theft would be tough here.

“Everything that could possibly be used (for bioterrorism) is well protected,” Lauer said, noting University research areas were already well secured before last fall because of previous threats from animal rights and environmental activists.

Most of what faculty members were told during and after the anthrax scare came as reminders. Laboratories should stay locked at all times, Lauer said, and any hazardous materials that could pose a serious threat should be locked up within the labs when not in use.

“We also told people that if they don’t want this stuff, we recommend getting rid of it,” he said.

On its Web site, the University Police Department recommends several tips for keeping research areas secure. They include being aware of strangers and unattended vehicles near campus buildings and escorting non-staff members at all times.

Patrick Schlievert, a microbiology professor whose research on flesh-eating strep and toxic shock syndrome requires the use of regulated toxins, said he has kept the most hazardous materials, like staphylococcal enterotoxins, in a heavy safe since last October. Only he and one colleague have a key to the safe. A keypad lock has guarded his laboratory door for a couple years, he said.

If airborne, one milligram of staphylococcal enterotoxins is enough to induce toxic shock syndrome in as many as 10,000 people.

Schlievert said the paperwork required to use such substances since the bioterrorism act was passed has been time consuming but understandable, and that his lab is more organized because of it.

“We have never had an accident. We’ve never had anybody get sick or anything like that,” Schlievert said. “But (these rules) just make you re-evaluate what you’re doing. It makes us more conscious of things.”