Lab codes examined amid fear of biowar

October 12, 2001

The government is considering tighter security for deadly micro organisms and toxins after the terrorist attacks on the United States. The discussions coincide with universities across the United Kingdom have reviewing laboratory procedures.

Fears of a bioweapon attack have increased following the US anthrax scare.

Many medical researchers work with biological agents that can cause serious human disease such as TB and plague bugs.

They may soon face tighter controls to prevent such substances falling into terrorist hands.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive confirmed the ongoing government considerations were in response to the perceived terrorist threat.

Laboratory security tends to be tight, not least to thwart attacks by animal rights activists, but many scientists believe there is room for improvement.

The control of substances hazardous to health regulations directs how harmful agents must be handled.

The HSE holds a register of materials and authorised users. Itsinspectors ensure the guidelines are followed.

The piecemeal reviews instigated by individual universities, look at issues such as laboratory access, the materials held and the registration of users.

Security is being examined at Cambridge and Leeds universities, and is to be discussed at the University of Wales College of Medicine.

Checks have been completed at Manchester University where a spokesman said:

"We are confident that existing systems are robust enough to cope with any potentially heightened risk."

But one leading microbiologist said: "Many university buildings and departments are not particularly secure, though it would be more difficult to get hold of these agents in this country than in the United States or in the developing world."

He voluntarily destroyed his collection of hazardous micro-organisms but said it was likely that phials of dangerous micro-organisms could lie forgotten in some laboratory storage facilities.

Simon Whitby, a research fellow at Bradford University's department of peace studies, felt it unlikely that terrorists could mount a bioweapon attack.

"There are quite formidable scientific and technological hurdles that they would have to overcome, though the events of September 11 question whether the moral restraint still remains," he said.

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