Plague Infected Mice Missing from UMDNJ Lab

This weekend it was reported that 2 mice infected with Yersinia pestis, the causitive agent of plague, were missing from a lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). In September 2005 it was also reported that 3 live mice infected with Y. pestis were missing from UMDNJ a lab. In this case however, the “missing mice” are actually the carcasses of mice who died during an experiment, were bagged and placed in a freezer for storage until the experiment was completed and they could be incinerated. It is believed that the missing bag of mice was accidentally sterilized along with another bag.

In both cases the FBI investigated and determined that there was no public health risk.

USAMRIID Suspends Select Agent Research

ScienceInsider is reporting that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suspended their research on biological select agents and toxins. Officials froze research last Friday when they realized that there were problems with the system of accounting for high risk microbes and biological materials in the laboratories at Fort Detrick, MD and have begun an inventory of select agents and toxins at the facility. Not coincidentally, this is the same facility that has been under intense scrutiny after the FBI named researcher Bruce Ivins as their main suspect in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

“The decision was announced by institute commander, Col. John Skvorak, in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. USAMRIID officials believed that a satisfactory accounting involved finding all the items listed on its database, the Army and DOD wanted the converse; that is, all select agents and toxins needed to be matched to the database.”

The Army is clearly clamping down on their select agent research programs with very strict accounting of biological agents and, personnel in direct response to the Ivins case. Of note, on October 28, 2008 Army Regulation 50-1 came into effect. AR50-1, outlines a strict Biological Personnel Reliability Program for all DoD employees with access to BSAT. In order to be cleared to work with or have access to BSAT everyone must go through intense screening. This includes an interview, personnel security investigation, personnel records review, medical evaluation (includes mental evaluation and any medications) and drug testing.

United States Reaches Moscow Treaty Warhead Limit Early

B83 thermonuclear bombs are offloaded from a C-17 aircraft for storage in preparation for meeting the limit of the Moscow Treaty three and a half years early.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States has reduced its deployed strategic warheads to the maximum number allowed under 2002 Moscow Treaty, three and a half years early.

As of today, a total of 2,200 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at long-range bomber bases. The reduction was initially planned to be met in 2012, then 2010, but was achieved a few days ago.

The information is described in the forthcoming “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2009,” which I co-author with Robert Norris from Natural Resources Defense Council. The article will be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later this month. Continue reading

President Obama on the Weatherization Program

In an interview with CBS’s Katie Couric on Wednesday, President Obama was asked about spending measures in the House version of the stimulus package that have been criticized by Sen. Mitch McConnell and others, including $6.2 Billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program. President Obama makes the case for the weatherization program as a means to jump start the economy by creating jobs immediately, saying “We’re going to weatherize homes, that immediately puts people back to work and we’re going to train people who are out of work, including young people, to do the weatherization. As a consequence of weatherization, our energy bills go down and we reduce our dependence on foreign oil. What would be a more effective stimulus package than that?”

The President is correct.

As a paper by the Federation of American Scientists demonstrates, the Weatherization Program is the longest running, and perhaps the most successful US Energy Efficiency Program. The program, which underwrites a portion of the cost for improving the energy efficiency of low-income homes, reduces heating costs by an average of 31 percent, resulting in significantly lower energy bills that are so important in trying economic times like these. The program also creates roughly 52 jobs for every $1 million of federal investment. The stimulus package’s investment of $6.2 Billion into the Weatherization program will result in roughly 300,000 jobs created.

The program carries a great potential to alleviate both the economic and energy woes our country currently faces. Investing in weatherization through the stimulus bill also provides the opportunity to create a more modern, streamlined and effective system for improving residential energy efficiency in the future. To do so, and to ensure the best use of stimulus funds, the weatherization program needs to improve the software tool that weatherization centers use to determine which retrofits are cost-effective, upgrade and standardize the training for energy auditors and weatherization crews, and start collecting data from the field about the real energy savings and costs of different weatherization measures to continuously improve the program.

FAS applauds President Obama and the members of congress for recognizing the potential of the Weatherization Program, and we look forward to seeing this potential realized.

NAS-AAAS Dual-Use Research Survey Results Released

Today the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), released their survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences. The survey was sent to AAAS members whose primary area of research was in the life sciences in order to assess their awareness of and attitudes toward “dual-use” research-studies undertaken for beneficial purposes that could also have harmful applications. The survey also explored actions the scientists might support to reduce the risk of misuse of research, as well as steps that scientists may already be taking in response to these concerns.

David Franz of the Midwest Research Institute and Ronald M. Atlas of the University of Louisville, two of the members of the committee which reviewed the survey results and wrote the final report presented the main findings. David Franz began by defining dual-use research and its importance within the life sciences community and Ronald Atlas discussed the primary findings of the survey. Atlas noted that a low response rate and uncertainty about whether the sample is representative of the broader life sciences community limits the ability to draw definitive conclusions. Nonetheless, the survey results are useful and informative and Atlas went on to explain that the results indicate that some respondents have already been so concerned about dual-use issues that they have altered their research or experiments. Even in the absence of guidelines or government restrictions some scientists have already taken action to try to avert misuse of biomedical research.

Copies of A Survey of Attitudes and Actions on Dual Use Research in the Life Sciences: A Collaborative Effort of the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are available from the National Academies Press.

Today’s presentation can be heard via podcast from the National Academies website.