Federal panel identifies 11 microorganisms for high security standards

A federal panel of scientists and security experts in the United States has identified 11 microorganisms designated as Tier 1 select agents, a new category of biological agents subject to the highest possible security standards.

The panel wants these agents to be held to higher standards of protection than other toxins and pathogens used in biomedical research. The category would include Ebola, anthrax, Variola major and Variola minor, Marburg virus and the bacterial strains that produce botulinum neurotoxin, Science Magazine reports.

The Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel also recommended dropping 19 pathogens and six toxins from the broader list of 82 agents currently governed by the select agent program.

The panel is led by George Korch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and veterinarian Gregory Parham of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was formed after an executive order in July by President Barack Obama to overhaul the select agent program and to categorize agents by risk with a view to tightening security for dangerous pathogens and reducing restrictions for less threatening agents.

The panel also made a host of recommendations aimed at reducing “insider threat,” the chance that a rogue researcher could use select agents to cause deliberate harm, according to Science Magazine. Suggestions include enhancing background checks of researchers working with select agents, creating a mental health database that screeners could use to disqualify researchers with a known history of mental health problems, and screening foreign nationals against terrorist databases on an ongoing basis rather than the current norm of every five years.

Those with access to Tier 1 agents might also have their credit statements and other financial records for personnel periodically checked, Science Magazine reports. The federal government will choose whether to accept or ignore the panel’s specific recommendations over the coming months.