WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health should be given greater authority to review proposed research that could potentially be used to create biological weapons, the National Research Council says.
Currently, research supported by federal funds comes before NIH committees to determine whether it should proceed.
Under a new proposal, that authority would be expanded to cover certain types of research at all US institutions, regardless of their source of funding.
The goal is to minimize the potential for terrorists or hostile nations to misuse the research, said the council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Research funded by NIH is reviewed by the NIH Institutional Biosafety Committee using guidelines developed by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. While the review committee has official jurisdiction only over NIH-funded projects, many government agencies and private firms participate voluntarily.
A new report recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services create a National Science Advisory Board for Biodefense to handle the proposed system of research supervision.
The board would include leading scientists and specialists in national security to provide advice on the risks and benefits of new technologies, and to look for opportunities for the development of vaccines and antibiotics.
Campbell Gardett, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has asked NIH to beef up its review of biomedical research, but the report goes beyond that.
Gerald R. Fink of MIT, chairman of the panel that prepared the report, said the board would help find a balance between national-security concerns and the openness necessary for research.
The report panel said the new review process should cover experiments that: Show how to make human or animal vaccines ineffective.
Develop resistance to antibiotics or antiviral agents for humans, animals, or crops.
Increase the virulence of human, animal, or plant pathogens, or make nonpathogens virulent.
Increase the transmissibility of pathogens.
Alter the host range of pathogens.
Show how to evade diagnostic or detection methods.
Enable biological agents or toxins to be developed into forms that can be used as weapons.