By STEVEN NALLEY
Psychiatric issues don’t necessarily keep people from working with the biohazards the FBI calls “select agents.”
William So, program and policy specialist with the FBI, said every researcher who wants to work with select agents has to file a form called the FD-961 with the FBI, who conducts a background check. If someone has had past psychiatric issues but sought help of their own accord instead of having them discovered in court, that person can pass the background check, So said.
It’s one of many reasons why it’s important for biotechnology employers to conduct thorough background checks on potential researchers, So said. He then used Seung-Hui Cho, the undergraduate student responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, as another example.
“He was court-adjudicated because of psychiatric issues,” So said. “However, that was kept within the commonwealth of Virginia. They did not enter it into a national database. So if this individual had applied for select agent access, the FBI would look at the national database, and potentially he could have gotten a green light to get select agent access. So, as constituents of your state, as voters, what can you do about strengthening biosecurity?”
So’s presentation was part of an FBI biosecurity workshop hosted at MSU’s Franklin Center Tuesday, attended by law enforcers and faculty from MSU and other universities.
Teresa Gammill, assistant vice president for research at MSU, said she was grateful to the FBI agents contributing to the biosecurity workshop, as well as other FBI agents conducting a cybercrime seminar at the Bost Extension Center the same day.
“A lot of us might take things for granted and say, ‘Well, things can’t happen here at Mississippi State,’” Gammill said. “We have to be prepared when emergencies arise in biosecurity. We’re all here this afternoon to learn how to respond to these emergencies, so that we can work with our local law enforcement agencies.”
Gammill said she was also grateful to Patricia Cox, assistant director of the MSU Office for Regulatory Compliance, for organizing the workshop. Cox said a wide range of institutions were represented in the audience for the workshop.
“We’ve got law enforcement; we’ve got academia; we’ve got some private research institutions here,” Cox said. “We’ve got the USDA. I think we’ve got, also, some public health agencies here.”
Daniel McMullen, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jackson division, said he was grateful to MSU for sponsoring the workshop, and to Louisiana State University and the Southern Research Institute of Alabama for participating. He said the workshop was designed to inform attendees about how security risks manifest themselves and how threats are discovered.
“But I think at the top of the list, what this is about is cooperation,” McMullen said. “We certainly know in a post 9/11 environment that no one agency, no one entity, can protect this country alone. It’s going to take all of us to understand what that threat looks like, to identify it and to mitigate it.”
So said biosecurity goes beyond just keeping select agents out of the wrong hands and containing them in research environments. Biosecurity also includes preventing exploitation of research and researchers.
“We’re not simply talking about terrorism issues, but we’re talking about exploitation for economic value,” So said.
Scientists need to guard against nefarious exploitation by guarding against dual use, or the potential for peaceful research to be used for weaponry, So said. They need to be aware of how public their research is, he said, and how easily terrorists can access and repurpose it.
“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t publish,’” So said. “It’s important information, but how can you do it in such a way that it makes it harder for any individual that might have nefarious intent? Do you have to outline each and every procedure, step and chemical when you publish?”
So said he and the FBI don’t necessarily have all the answers. Rather, the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and scientists need to work together to prevent biotechnology from falling into the wrong hands.
“We’re not saying (you should) put guards, guns and gates in front of every petri dish that you have,” So said, “but what are some practical solutions so you can ensure that only the right people have access?”