Monday, June 22, 2009

Biosecurity and Bruce Ivins

Even if Bruce Ivins was not guilty of the 2001 Anthrax mailings, which is itself a considerable leap of faith, there is still much that is undisputed fact about the Bruce Ivins story as a measure of current biosecurity failings.

It is undisputed that Buce Ivins had USAMARID authority to work alone with select agents such as anthrax. It is also undisputed that Dr. Ivins had sought psychiatric care and that at least one respected professional colleague had filed a criminal complaint about his behavior. It is also undisputed that the FBI had all of this information and yet no action was taken. Didn't USAMARID also have all of the above information?

There are reportedly now 14,000 scientists approved to work with select agents in this country alone. The research sponsor with the greatest resources and incentive for maintaining strong biosecurity was USAMARID, the same sponsor who controlled Dr. Ivins access! How bad, then , is the biosecurity at the least biosecure sponsor?

We know that a properly enforced two-man rule would likely have prevented Dr. Ivins from misusing pathogens in his lab (whether he did or not). But the two-man rule is opposed as costly. Is it unnecessary or just inconvenient?

As biotechnology continues to develop, even more dangerous pathogens will emerge, either through discovery in nature or from genetic engineering. Must we wait until it's too late to propose appropriate biosecurity standards for these inevitable circumstances? As Oxford's Dr. Nick Bostrom observed, trial and error is not an effective approach to existential risks. As a very concerned parent, I sometimes allow myself sarcastic license.

What might a BL-5 biosecurity standard require? I suggest a "five-eye rule" whereby all work with certain pathogens, such as smallpox or a future highly contagious, fatal disease but not all select agents, be performed by two unaffiliated researchers within a lab with 100% videomonitoring by a trained remote observer not affiliated with either researcher. Decontamination egress would be controlled by the remote observer. To reduce costs, the lab observer and the remote observer could be trained in biosecurity but without any post-graduate education.

Ideally, the remote observer would be from a different nation than the research but that level of oversight might need to be part of a 'second round' of reform.

What am I missing? Is the risk tuly remote? If there were a 0.1%/decade risk of a global pandemic, what would be the dollar value of lowering that risk? Given the global social, economic and political implications of a bio-error pandemic, and the resulting fear of another, it must be in the tens of billions. Is it in the trillions?

Your thoughts are welcome. Opposing views are especially appreciated.