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Is another Bruce Ivins lurking in a biolab?

/ Source: The Associated Press

There could be another Bruce Ivins lurking somewhere in a biodefense laboratory.

These research facilities have expanded so quickly since the anthrax attacks in 2001 that the government cannot keep close tabs on the sites or their thousands of scientists. Security procedures are designed more to prevent accidents than to deal with security-cleared scientists who control their own lab.

Billions of biodefense dollars from the Bush administration swelled to nearly 1,400 the number of labs handling potential biological weapons including anthrax.

Background checks for people handing such germs and toxins are unlikely to ferret out workers with homicidal tendencies or extreme political views. There is little to stop a scientist, especially a principal investigator in charge of his own lab, from smuggling out an anthrax spore, for example, on a cotton swab used to clean his ear.

'Select agents'
Nearly everyone cleared to work in a lab with the most dangerous substances — designated by the government as "select agents" — has access to potential biological weapons.

"You cannot persuade me there are not more disturbed or disgruntled persons with a political agenda in such a large group," Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor at Rutgers University who has closely followed the lab expansion, said in an interview Sunday.

Ivins, the late microbiologist suspected in the anthrax attacks, had attempted to poison people as far back as 2000 and his therapist said she was "scared to death" of him, according to court testimony that emerged Saturday.

A social worker testified at a court hearing in Frederick, Md., on July 24 in a successful bid for a protective order from Ivins — who five days later committed suicide — that he "actually attempted to murder several other people."

Ivins took a fatal dose of acetaminophen, the active drug in Tylenol, as federal authorities monitored his movements and prepared to charge him with the murder of five people who died from anthrax poisoning in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ebright contended that Bush's response to the anthrax cases increased the risk of further attack. While a biodefense program is needed, he said the president should have reduced — not raised — the number of scientists with access to potential biological weapons.

Security concerns
Under federal law, scientists and others are restricted from working on vaccines and treatments for biological agents if they are: under indictment for, or convicted of, a felony; a fugitive; a drug user; an illegal immigrant; were judged mentally defective or committed to a mental institution; came from a country that supported international terrorism; or were discharged dishonorably from the U.S. military.

These limitations would not exclude a white supremacist, a radical Islamist or someone with homicidal tendencies who was not declared mentally ill, indicted or convicted of a felony.

Edward Hammond, who has followed biolab safety since 1999 as head of the Sunshine Project, said the culture at bioweapons laboratories works against spotting a senior scientist who wants to do harm.

"The principal investigators rule the roost in their labs," Hammond said. "One of the complaints by people who work in safety and security is, they can't get the time of day from people running the labs."

Security questions "are viewed as deeply offensive by a lot of scientists, as if their patriotism is being questioned," Hammond said.

The Government Accountability Office reported last fall that no federal agency is responsible for determining the risks associated with the proliferation of labs.

"Though several agencies have a need to know, no one agency knows the number and location of these labs in the United States," according to the investigative arm of Congress.