BioWorld International Correspondent
LONDON - The UK needs stronger vetting procedures to prevent bioterrorists getting access to biotechnology research laboratories in both industry and academia, according to a committee of members of Parliament.
"We are concerned that existing measures to regulate the use of biotechnological research in this country may be insufficient to prevent dangerous materials falling into the hands of terrorist groups," concluded the Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report on biological weapons published last week.
There is currently a non-mandatory scheme in place in universities to vet postgraduate applicants, but the committee said it is concerned that it does not cover commercial laboratories or other public-sector laboratories, such as those in the National Health Service.
Under the vetting scheme, universities are required to refer details of any applicants from countries where there are concerns about weapons programs, including Iran, Iraq and Libya, to the Foreign Office. The system was set up in 1994, following the discovery after the Gulf War that a number of scientists involved in Iraq's weapons programs had done postgraduate studies in the UK. They include Rihab Taha, who studied at the University of East Anglia in the 1980s and went on to become head of Iraq's biological weapons program.
However, in a recent survey carried out by File on Four, an investigative program on BBC Radio, of 41 universities with postgraduate microbiology departments, 16 said they did not cooperate with the vetting scheme.
The Foreign Affairs Committee said not only that it was concerned that the voluntary scheme was not tight enough, but also that "it does not apply to the National Health Service, wholly commercial research laboratories or other institutions."
"Our anxiety is that a fully qualified research scientist, who unknown to the authorities was a supporter of a terrorist group, could be admitted to a postgraduate or other research institution within the UK to pursue an approved program of research. Such a scientist could thus gain unhindered access to dangerous materials or pathogens."
The government should take steps to strengthen its control over biotechnological research and consider the introduction of mandatory controls, the committee said.
The committee also called on the government to set up a central body to coordinate the control of dangerous pathogens, saying, "Existing regulations on storage of pathogens were drawn up with health and safety, rather than the terrorist, in mind."
In addition, the committee said, the UK government should promote the drawing up of an international code of practice for scientists working with dangerous pathogens.