US committee approves new biosecurity legislation

In June,The US House Homeland Security Committee approved legislation designed to overhaul security at US biological research facilities and enhance federal efforts to combat the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Members of the committee voted 26-0 on 23 June in favour of the ‘WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2010’ bill, which must now be put before the full House of Representatives.

Notably, the legislation requires the US homeland security secretary to establish a ‘negotiated rulemaking committee’ incorporating representatives from a host of government departments to develop ‘enhanced biosecurity measures for persons or laboratories’ that possess or work with items on a yet-to-be-decided list of ‘Tier 1 Material Threat Agents’. The US departments for Agriculture and Health and Human Services would then be required to conduct inspections to enforce rules set by the committee, and to establish training programmes for facility personnel.

Earlier this year, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism graded the Obama administration with a lowly ‘F’ in assessing its state of preparedness for a biological attack, and a ‘D+’ in its oversight of high-containment laboratories. ‘Moving [the WMD Prevention and Preparedness] bill quickly through the legislative process, and to the president’s desk for signature, will be an incredibly important step in improving America’s biodefence posture,’ said the Prevention of WMD commission’s two chairs, former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, in a statement after the House committee’s bill was unveiled on 10 June. But its onward passage would not necessarily be easy, they said. ‘Our years of experience in Congress tell us this bill will require vigorous support from congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle.’

Speaking ahead of the vote, Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, noted his concern that this piece of legislation ‘could be stuck in the same jurisdictional turf battles we have been fighting’ since the Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. ‘If we simply shelve this legislation because of jurisdictional turf battles then we prove the idea that we are no safer today than we were on September 10th, 2001.’

The House committee’s endorsement of this bill follows on from the approval of similar legislation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last November. That bill, which has yet to reach the full Senate chamber, called for the separation of selected agents and toxins into three tiers. As envisaged by the Senate committee, facilities handling the most dangerous, top tier, pathogens would be regulated by the US Department for Homeland Security while regulation of those facilities handling pathogens in the other two tiers would be assigned to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). How these two bills will be integrated into one legislative package remains, as yet, unclear. ‘Where will the two trains meet? I can’t answer that question,’ said Mr Pascrell, upon the introduction of his legislation. ‘But we would hope that we would all be on the same page when we get finished.’

David Cliff, London