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Biosecur Bioterror. 2004;2(2):81-5.

Biodefense research: can secrecy and safety coexist?

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Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08542, USA.


Over the next 10 years, the United States will spend 6 billion US dollars to develop countermeasures against biological and chemical weapons. Much of this research on highly virulent pathogens will be done in academic settings around the country. This article explores the challenges in ensuring secrecy to protect national security while accommodating the right of local communities to have access to safety information regarding select agents and laboratory-acquired infections. Secrecy has been defended as being vital for protecting national security. Problems with secrecy can include the misinterpretation of intentions, particularly in laboratories located in nuclear weapons design facilities, and the restricted access to information relevant to public health and safety. While federal select agent legislation requires laboratories to have emergency plans in place with first responders, these plans do not necessarily include public health professionals, who will be responsible for any future public health action, such as quarantine, surveillance, or mass vaccinations, in the unlikely event that a laboratory-acquired infection spreads into a community. Laboratory-acquired infections do occur, even with the best safety mechanisms in place; however, the epidemiology of the incidence and severity of these infections are not known since there is no national surveillance reporting system. Evidence suggests that many of these infections occur in the absence of an actual laboratory accident. The best emergency plans and surveillance systems are only as good as the participation and vigilance of the laboratory workers themselves. Thus, laboratory workers have a responsibility to themselves and others to report all laboratory accidents and spills, regardless how minor. In addition, they should have a lower threshold than normal in seeking medical attention when feeling ill, and their physicians should be aware of what pathogens they work with to reduce the risk of a delay in diagnosis.

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