Curbs On Pathogens Pose Dilemma For Scientists After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government began imposing curbs on research into pathogens that could be potentially used by terrorists. That has led researchers to quietly destroy valuable specimens of some pathogens for fear of running afoul of legal restrictions.

Curbs On Pathogens Pose Dilemma For Scientists

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It turns out that valuable samples of other dangerous microbes get destroyed all the time. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: But then the government decided this disease had potential as a bioweapon. So it was added to a special list of pathogens that could potentially be used by terrorists against crops or people. Once it became a so-called select agent, all research had to be carefully restricted. So that meant the end to business as usual for Anne Vidaver's slime disease work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Essentially, I had to either receive special permission to work with it, or destroy it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Getting this special permission wouldn't be easy. It would mean things like putting in new lab security, and doing background checks of personnel.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It would have required an enormous amount of funding and time. That did not work out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That kind of loss worries Michael Imperiale.

INSKEEP: Some of these microbes might be valuable down the line.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To get a sense of how many collections might have been lost, Imperiale recently sent a survey to microbiologists across the country.

INSKEEP: Although we know that the 12 or 13 or 14 institutions from whom we heard destroyed what they had, we don't know how many others there were out there. So we don't have a good - we can't say well, X-percent of the strains were destroyed, or something like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But another researcher, who worked on the recent survey, reports that microbe destruction is still happening. Arturo Casadevall is a scientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They're going to say to you that yes, there are mechanisms in place for the transfer of these things. But what is not recognized is that these mechanisms are complex. They require a lot of energy, and they require the person to put a lot of energy into doing so.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says most doctors and researchers just don't have the time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Let's say that at any hospital, you recover from a patient one of these agents. You have only a few days by which to either send it to a collection, or to destroy it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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