Analysis & Opinions - Nature

Your Inbox, Mr. President

| January 15, 2009

Rejuvenate the Environmental Protection Agency. End the stem-cell ban. Re engage with the UN on climate change. Six leading voices tell Nature what the new US president needs to do to move beyond the Bush legacy.

Matthew Meselson

Co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on chemical and biological weapons, Harvard University, USA.

Vast biosecurity expenditures require better oversight and monitoring.

It is seven years since envelopes containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media offices and to two US Senators, causing 11 cases of identified inhalation anthrax, five of which were fatal. In August 2008, the FBI announced that they had traced the source of the spores to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, one of the many US facilities conducting biodefence research. Although there has been no repetition of such attacks, the episode underscores the need for better oversight of biodefence activities and of the individuals conducting them.

Federal expenditure for civilian biodefence during 2001–08, conducted mainly by the departments of health and human services, homeland security, and defence is estimated at about US$50 billion, of which roughly one-third was for research1.

Department of Defense (DoD) outlays for biodefence research, development and testing for strictly military objectives currently run at several hundred million dollars per year2. Relevant expenditures by the various intelligence agencies have not been made public. Oversight of biodefence — to ensure that activities comply with existing laws and international agreements — varies from agency to agency, with perhaps the most advanced being that of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In addition to scientific peer-review to assess scientific merit, the DHS has a Compliance Review Group (CRG) that reviews all DHS-sponsored research for compliance with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and with US criminal law. It also applies the criteria of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in assessing proposed projects that have potential for hostile misuse. The CRG meets at least twice a year, and before each meeting there is a call for abstracts of proposed projects to be submitted by their respective principal investigators, who at the same time are reminded of their responsibility to ensure compliance with treaty commitments and applicable US law.

CRG members, therefore, are informed about all projects before they commence and the group continues to oversee them as they evolve. Projects deemed by CRG staff to pose risks of actual or perceived non-compliance, or which are likely to pose a dual-use potential for misapplication, are individually briefed to the group and, in some cases, the CRG members are required to acknowledge personal responsibility by signing their names to decisions regarding approval or denial of support for a project.

The compliance procedures in other departments are not as rigorous and there is no process to ensure consistency across government agencies. The DoD, for example, reviews biodefence projects at a broader ‘programme’ level rather then reviewing individual projects.

Oversight of biodefence activities is likely to come under examination by the new Congress, which could devise guidelines and procedures applicable throughout government. Topics to be considered should include the authority and composition of compliance review boards, criteria for approval of projects, harmonization of procedures, procedures for ensuring the reliability of personnel engaged in biodefence work, provision for site visits, a requirement for periodic reports, and the inclusion of State and Justice Department observers to promote both independence from parochial influences and familiarity with treaty commitments and applicable US law.

The resulting procedure could then serve as a model for consideration by the state parties of the Biological Weapons Convention at its seventh review conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2011. The aim would be to agree on a requirement for detailed periodic submissions from each nation describing the oversight procedures it employs to ensure compliance with the convention. The objective would be to increase awareness of the need for improved oversight and to facilitate the development of international measures for enhanced exchange and transparency regarding implementation of the convention.

1. Franco, C. Biosecur. Bioterror. 6, 131–146 (2008).

2. Roles and Responsibilities Associated with the Chemical and Biological Defense (CBD) Program (CBDP), Department of Defense Directive 5160.05E (2008). Available at: www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/516005p.pdf

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Meselson, Matthew.“Your Inbox, Mr. President.” Nature, January 15, 2009.