Since the 2001 anthrax scare in the US, the government here has maintained a list of 80 microbes and toxins that are essentially forbidden to researchers. Now scientists say the list is undermining security rather than strengthening it.
The list is called the Select Agents and Toxins List (SATL), and the microbes on the list are chosen without any input from researchers in a process that is far from transparent. In an article published today in Nature Reviews Microbiology, scientists Arturo Casadevall and David Relman say that the list is hobbling research efforts as well as the nation's biosecurity. They say that items on the list are almost impossible to get for legitimate research. And in fact, many of the substances are needed for research into vaccines which would protect people from the very bio-attacks the government fears.
Moreover, the scientists take issue with the microbes placed on the list, many of which are chosen based on their taxonomic category. Unfortunately, taxonomy doesn't always work well with microbes, which can have many different strains of varying toxicity and whose so-called species often overlap. So the list both overreaches and underreaches, missing dangerous strains and including harmless ones. It's also very difficult to appeal the inclusion of a harmless item on the list. The authors note:
To protect the country from biohazards, both human-made and naturally evolving, scientists need access to many items on the SATL list. Casadevall and Relman suggest that the list be cut down to a few items, and more importantly that the process by which the items are chosen be made more transparent. And hey, how about getting some microbiologists involved in the whole process too? You know, just because they might actually know what they're talking about.