Study calls for safeguards against misuse of advances in life sciences

NATIONAL CAPITAL REGION, Feb. 6, 2006 – Vigilance among the world's scientists, an expanded view of bioterrorism threats, and a stronger public health infrastructure are needed to reduce the growing risk that new advances in the life sciences and related technologies will be used to create novel biological weapons or misused by careless individuals, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

Randy Murch, associate director of research program development at Virginia Tech, contributed to the study as a member of the Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of their Application to Next Generation Bioterrorism and Biowarfare Threats.

"We have leaned forward to address the emerging and future challenges associated with rapidly evolving and spreading life sciences knowledge and technology and its misuse whether by terrorism, criminal acts, or bungling," said Murch, who was deputy director of the FBI’s Laboratory and Investigative Technology Divisions and a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analysis before joining Virginia Tech. "We were very concerned that the policies and practices that have been instituted may not be positioning science and society to effectively deal with what is already happening or could in the future."

Murch said, "My colleagues and I believe that our global society should deal with the challenges well before they occur, rather than react to them badly after they are on top of us. It's clear that a 'tool kit' of complementary approaches is needed to reduce these concerns and threats, while strengthening a global commitment to the pursuit and use of science and technology for noble and beneficial purposes.

"There is no one 'silver bullet', and there is no time to waste."

As a start, the entire scientific community should broaden its awareness that bioterrorism threats now include, for example, new approaches for manipulating or killing a host organism or for producing synthetic micro-organisms, the report says, and recommends that an independent advisory body be established to analyze new information and work with U.S. intelligence officials and government leaders -- helping them to stay abreast of developments in the life sciences that could be used for both peaceful and destructive aims, the report says.

Murch said that the study builds on recent, related studies, such as "Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism" (known as The Fink Report after the study's chair) published in 2004 by the National Research Council.

More on this report may be found here.