Self-policing best defense against insider bioterrorism attacks

The best defense against insider bioterrorist attacks is "a culture of trust and responsibility in the laboratory," according to a science panel report released Sept. 30.

The National Research Council report, "Responsible Research with Biological Select Agents and Toxins," concludes that developing strong ethics against misuse of microbes matters as much, or more, to forestall attacks like the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed 5 people and sickened 17 others.

"The goal should be that individuals watch out for each other and take responsibility for their own performance and that of others," says a statement from the report panel, headed by Rita Colwell of the University of Maryland.

Some 80 "select agents," microbes and toxins ranging from ricin to plague, require registration with federal authorities. Security Risk Assessment screening checks more than 20 criminal, immigration, and terrorist databases to qualify researchers and is appropriate, the panel says.

However, "because biological select agents can replicate, an undue reliance on accounting techniques, such as counting vials, to monitor whether a biological agent has been removed from a laboratory offers a false sense of security and is counterproductive."

Instead, lab security must heavily involve researchers themselves in a culture of safety to forestall accidents and malicious use of microbes.