On the destruction of pathogens after 9/11

Our quick response to the 2009 influenza pandemic depended on the collections. Destroying microbes is a problem and could put our response to infectious diseases and forensic ability at risk.

9/11 changed the rules for researchers handling microbes that were suddenly put on the Select Agents and Toxins List. The microbes once studied for drug development and vaccine design, were suddenly considered a potential biological weapon and government officials were worried the microbes could be used by terrorists.

Some scientists destroyed their collections when legal and transport issues popped up.

While there's no official record of the destruction, scientists are opening up about some cases when they had to get rid of their samples, forever.

Yesterday, I heard an excellent piece on NPR's Morning Edition that describes the situation clearly. Basically, scientists are throwing away microbial collections because of legal hurdles and regulations.

A researcher at the University of Nebraska said on air that she had been studying a bacterium for a few years, but had to destroy it when the government decided to classify the microbe as a bioweapon. The news rules would have required her to implement new security measures into the lab. So when it came down to it, she didn't have the time and money to pull through. So what did she do? She destroyed the bacteria.

That's one story. And unfortunately, there are more like hers.

Recently, Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine asked 1,000 individuals in the biosafety community if "microbial collections were destroyed in your institution in the post 9/11 days as the select regulations became law."

In the survey, Casadevall found 13 episodes of microbial destruction of fungal, bacterial and virus strains. But he anticipates, there are probably more unreported cases of microbial destruction. Casadevall added that "the motivation for the destruction of the collection was a desire to avoid the perceived burdens of the regulatory environment associated with operating under the Select Agent Regulations."

Here are some reasons the individuals destroyed their microbial collections:

  • Investigators tried to transfer collection but found that the transport procedures were too complicated and time consuming so Xanthomaonas oryzae pv. Oryae was tossed.
  • Investigators attempted to have a collaborator register and maintain collection, without success, so Yerisnia pestis was destroyed.
  • Investigators tried to transfer stocks to registered institutions but were not successful, so Vesticular Stomatitis Virus was destroyed.

Besides epidemiological surveillance and use in developing vaccines and drugs, microbial populations are useful in forensic investigations as well.

The destruction of the collections represents a loss of biodiversity, a pool of information that is critical for biomedical research and the development of vaccines and antimicrobial drugs. For instance, researchers were quick to identify the new influenza strain in 2009, thanks to viral collections accumulated over the last 100 years. And collections were used to figure out the case of the 2001 shipments of Bacillus anthracis spores.

Criminalizing microbe and toxin possession has an unintended consequence of causing some researchers to destroy valuable microbial collections. Perhaps, it needs to be easier for researchers to transfer the microbes to correct institutions, so legal and other transport issues don't cause the scientists to unnecessarily to destroy valuable databases.

And the other issue that is up for debate, is deciding which samples to save. As NPR pointed out, the United States still has to figure out if keeping the last known small pox samples is worth it or not. Should the small pox sample be saved for the sake of medicine or should it be destroyed in fear that it could end up in the wrong hands? What do you think?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com