More frequent screenings recommended for handlers of deadly pathogens

More frequent security screening has been recommended by a federal panel for researchers who handle the world's deadliest pathogens.

Random drug tests and closer monitoring of both the physical and mental health of those who have access to dangerous pathogens was also suggested by The Working Group on Strengthening the Biosecurity of the United States. The panel recommended that tighter scrutiny should also be focused on foreign nationals who work in U.S. labs.

The panel's report was ordered by former president George W. Bush's administration following an FBI report that an Army scientist was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks that left five people dead.

Lawmakers and federal regulators will take the panel's recommendations, which were published on Friday, into consideration as they seek to improve the safety of labs handling dangerous toxins.

Those who work with dangerous pathogens, the panel said, should be required to undergo a security risk assessment every three years instead of the current five. Certain mental health indicators currently prohibited from use by the FBI should be included in the review, the panel suggested.

Some of the recommendations currently used in the security risk assessment could deter talented scientists from U.S. lab work, dulling the nation's competitive edge, Jean L. Patterson, chairwoman of the Department of Virology & Immunology at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas told the Los Angeles Times.

"We need people doing countermeasures work in this country and if they find that it's too onerous and the rules aren't clear-cut, people might be reluctant to do it," Patterson said.