An antiterrorism measure, signed into law last week by President George W. Bush, gives spy and police agencies broad new investigative powers. It also bars several classes of people--including felons, the mentally ill, and those from nations deemed "terrorist" by the U.S. government--from possessing certain viruses, toxins, and microorganisms that could be used as weapons. The new rules may force universities to conduct criminal background checks and drug tests on thousands of scientists and students who study anthrax, smallpox, and about 40 other deadly agents.
Up to 300 universities--and several dozen more state and federal government labs--currently handle material classified as "select agents" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, according to Ron Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky. While many facilities already screen workers doing classified work for the military or conducting federally funded drug studies, other university labs currently don't require such measures.
John Collier, who studies anthrax at Harvard University, says he "could live with" a background check, which security companies say can cost from $20 to thousands of dollars per person. But he fears that having to screen every worker in his lab "could create a huge bureaucracy" without significantly improving security. Anthrax and other potential bioweapons can be cultured from natural sources or a sick person, he and others note, and don't necessarily have to be filched from a lab.
One idea getting better reviews is to create a national registry to track select agents. Bioterrorism experts have long urged Congress to require researchers who possess deadly materials to register their collections with CDC, and the agency has been embarrassed by its inability to specify how many U.S. labs might have produced the anthrax that has contaminated U.S. mailrooms. CDC and Congress are considering setting up a registry.
Many researchers say they welcome the added security if it keeps research materials from falling into the wrong hands. "It's overdue," says molecular biologist Julia Hilliard of Georgia State University, Atlanta. But some scientists worry that the recent anthrax attacks may cause Congress to take additional steps--including barring non-U.S. citizens from handling certain materials--that could hinder academic research.