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Biosecurity, WMD Bill Clears House Committee; Includes Call for Synthetic Genomic Study

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A US House of Representatives committee this week swiftly passed a new anti-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction bill that emphasizes biosecurity, proposes creating a specific intelligence strategy for biothreats, and seeks to begin to create a safety shield of new measures against bioterrorism.

The bi-partisan WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act, which was introduced on June 10 by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D – NJ) and drafted with Rep. Peter King (R – NY), passed the House Committee on Homeland Security unanimously by a vote of 26-0 on Wednesday.

If enacted into law, it would create a national intelligence strategy for countering biological threats, start a WMD intelligence sharing and collaboration framework, promote bioterrorism risk-assessment tools, create a tiered system of threat agents, and enhance a range of biosecurity measures and standards.

The WMD bill, which has a Senate companion introduced by Joseph Lieberman (I – Conn.) and Susan Collins (R – Me.), also would unleash $50 million to fund grants to enhance security at labs housing top-tier threat agents and would set up a new cross-agency, rule-making committee. The act would create a national biosecurity center, and it would require a study of how synthetic genomics technologies may be used as biothreats and how those threats should be addressed.

The central aim of the biosecurity parts of this act zero in on creating an overarching security net against dangerous biological agents. The net would require harmonization of practices and enhancements of collaborations through information sharing, addressing new technologies, countermeasure needs, and enhancing intelligence that is focused on biothreats.

The push for a bioterrorism bill began after a 2008 report from the WMD Commission called "World at Risk" identified biosecurity as a critical weakness. A subsequent report card from that commission early this year gave the US a failing grade on its efforts to enhance rapid-response capabilities to prevent biological attacks, and poor-to-average grades on its oversight of high-containment labs and its efforts to strengthen domestic and global disease surveillance networks.

President Barack Obama's administration has made biosecurity one of the three issues it has tasked its National Science and Technology Council with addressing, and in November 2009, it issued a "National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats."

That strategy focuses on establishing and reinforcing norms against misuse in the life sciences, and on coordinating new activities to influence, identify, and inhibit those who seek to misuse biological agents. It also includes a medical response framework, WMD countermeasures, and public health and medical preparedness measures.

The White House also has taken biodefense into account in its budget, increasing its proposed biothreat funding in 2011 by four percent, or $271 million, to $6.5 billion, according to analysis conducted by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

UPMC points out, however, that over 90 percent of the biosecurity funding has both biodefense and non-biodefense applications that could apply to a range of public health and security issues.

Some of the biosecurity measures in the bill include enhancing standards for lab and support personnel, and lab security, and it would create penalties for those that do not meet the standards.

The House legislation would also promote bioterrorism risk assessments to identify threats, knowledge gaps, biodefense vulnerabilities, and make risk-based prioritization judgments. It also would convene a task force to offer recommendations for dealing with these issues.
In addition, the bill also would establish a rule-making committee with representatives from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and from academic research institutes and other entities.

The part of the act concerned with the synthetic genomics would require that the Under Secretary for Homeland Security for Science and Technology study and provide a report to Congress within one year of passage about these technologies. The aim would be to determine the current capability of synthetic nucleic acid providers to differentiate legitimate customers from potential terrorists, to study how providers can screen orders of sequences for security purposes, and to develop recommendations regarding screening software, protocols, and other remaining capability gaps that were found during the study.

After the committee passed the bill, Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D – Miss.) in a statement called the act "a major step forward on the threat from WMD."

"Specifically, under this bill, we will — for the first time — direct the Federal government to focus its resources and capabilities, in a coordinated manner, to address this unconventional emerging threat."

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