Why I ...think blanket vetting of foreign science students will do more harm than good

December 20, 2002

Last week's House of Commons foreign affairs committee report concludes that laboratories in universities, research institutes and the National Health Service contain dangerous organisms and material that could be used as weapons by bioterrorists masquerading as students or research scientists. The committee accepts that the current voluntary arrangements work adequately for the "higher category of pathogens" such as smallpox, but consider that the arrangements are unsatisfactory for the lower categories, including HIV, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and yellow fever. The committee therefore recommends a compulsory vetting procedure for overseas students and researchers who might be allowed access to facilities containing these organisms.

To maintain standards and be even-handed, our admissions procedures for graduate and postgraduate education are complex. To add a central vetting procedure, which will be time-consuming, bureaucratic and intrusive, will make the admission of overseas students very unattractive to the institutions and to the students themselves. The outcome will be a substantial reduction in the number of overseas students coming to the UK to study biological sciences and biomedicine. Does this matter? Yes, the health of the academic community depends on international interaction and the place of the UK in the world depends on cultural interchange.

The benefits of these proposals are not obvious. The "lower categories of pathogens" that concern the committee are dangerous but they mostly represent a significant risk to the individual rather than to the population at large. Many laboratories in the UK work on HIV and store samples of the virus, but HIV could not conceivably be used as a bioterrorist weapon. The virus is transmitted sexually and by blood contact, and the aspiring terrorist would need to inject the virus into the intended victims - hardly an effective terror strategy. And why take the trouble and expense of infiltrating a laboratory when a syringe-full of infected blood could doubtless be purchased from an Aids victim in almost any capital city in the world?

It is likely that there are a small number of laboratories in the UK studying organisms of interest to the bioterrorist or developing technology that would best be kept out of the hands of potential terrorists - large-scale culture methods, for example. The aim must be to identify these "risk laboratories" specifically rather than impose a blanket vetting procedure on all laboratories that work with dangerous pathogens. In the UK we are well placed to identify such laboratories. The Health and Safety Executive maintains records of all high containment facilities in the UK, and all genetic manipulation of pathogens is centrally recorded and must be centrally authorised.

We must take the bioterrorist threat seriously, but our preoccupation with weapons of mass destruction should not divert our attention from the more certain infectious disease threats that face us. Tens of millions of people are killed each year by HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. These diseases are becoming increasingly drug-resistant, they are spreading inexorably and we have no satisfactory strategy to combat them. This is a global problem that requires a global response.

An important part of that response is to train scientists from many countries to diagnose these diseases and to work with the causative agents. By discouraging foreign students and scientists from studying in the UK and by reducing international scientific collaboration we are unlikely to have much impact on the bioterrorist threat, but we may well reduce our ability to deal with the real global epidemics.

Tony Minson
Professor, department of pathology
Cambridge University

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