Introduction of the Infectious Agents Control Act of 1996

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Introduction of the Infectious Agents Control Act of 1996
by Edward J. Markey

Introduction of the Infectious Agents Control Act of 1996. Congressional Record. March 6, 1996. Extensions of Remarks. Page E294-E295. DOCID:cr06mr96-45. (available online)


Wednesday, March 6, 1996

Mr. MARKEY. Mr. Speaker, I am introducing today the Infectious Agents Control Act of 1996, which will address the need to keep infectious agents that could pose a serious threat to the public health and safety out of the hands of dangerous people while ensuring that these substances remain available to scientists with a legitimate research need for them.

By now, most of Members of this body have probably read news reports about Larry Wayne Harris, the Ohio white-supremacist who ordered bubonic plague through the mail last summer. It is frightening to think that just about anybody with a 32-cent stamp and a little chutzpah could get a hold of any number of potentially dangerous infectious substances. The Ohio case may be an isolated incident or it may not be--we really don't know. Why? Because the Federal Government has no system in place today to regulate the transfer of these agents within the United States. I think that's a situation that needs to be corrected, and I am introducing legislation today to do so.

Why worry about the flow of potentially dangerous infectious agents within our borders? Let me read you a few lines from an article on the threat posed by these agents when they are converted into biological weapons, written by U.S. Navy Commander Stephen Rose for the Naval War College Review. Cmdr. Rose writes that:

Science can now reshuffle the genetic deck of micro- organisms to produce a theoretically unlimited number of combinations, each with its own unique blend of toxicity, hardness, incubation period, etc. In short, it is becoming possible to synthesize biological agents to military specifications. Thus, the world lies on the threshold of a dangerous era of designer bugs as well as designer drugs.

Biological weapons have been called the poor man's atomic bomb. They are relatively cheap to produce, and you get an appallingly big bang for your buck. In fact, experts report that some of the supertoxins that have been developed in recent years are ten thousand times more potent than the nerve gases we are more accustomed to, which have been described as mere perfume in comparison to some of their biological competitors. The Office of Technology Assessment reports that some 15 nations, including Libya, North Korea, and Iraq, are suspected of having biological weapons development programs.

Clearly, the potential of biological weapons to rain devastation down upon their victims should give those charged with preventing international terrorist attacks on our Nation cause for serious concern. However, the lesson we learned from the tragedy at Oklahoma City is that we cannot be satisfied to only look outward for terrorist threats. We must also be vigilant against home-grown threats from paramilitary groups within our borders, which could use biological or chemical weapons against their fellow Americans to further their radical anti-government agendas.

On the morning of March 20, 1995, the Japanese Government was faced with just such a situation. A home-grown Armageddon-group called Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas--a deadly nerve agent that is 500 times more toxic than cyanide gas--in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and injuring thousands more. According to a staff report on the incident prepared by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Aum sect had its own chemical weapons manufacturing plant, for the production of sarin gas, and was trying to develop biological weapons, including botulism and anthrax. To get a sense of power of those weapons, consider this: 3 billionths of an ounce of botulism toxin would be enough to kill me.

Incidentally, the staff report concluded that the Aum sect was ``a clear danger to not only the Japanese Government but also to the security interests of the United States, which was the target of much of the Aum leader's rhetoric.

In an effort to reduce the risk of a similar attack in the United States, I am introducing legislation directing the Centers for Disease Control to develop a regulatory regime to control access to those infectious agents that could pose the greatest threat to public health if they fell into the wrong hands. It is my understanding that a working group including representatives of CDC, the Department of Justice, and other relevant Federal agencies already has begun to develop such a regime. My bill would ensure that that work is completed and the system is in place within 1 year of its enactment. I am pleased to be joined in this effort by Budget Chairman John Kasich and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II.

I am hopeful that this legislation will be given the swift attention that the issue it addresses demands in the House, and that the Senate will take up similar legislation soon.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).