ScienceScope

Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1225
  1. Russian Scientist Dies After Ebola Lab Accident

    A Russian scientist working on an Ebola vaccine died last week following a lab accident. On 5 May, Antonina Presnyakova, 46, pricked her hand with a syringe after drawing blood from infected guinea pigs in an ultrasecure biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility at the Vektor Research Institute of Molecular Biology, a former bioweapons lab near Novosibirsk, Russia. She was hospitalized immediately, says a lab official, developed symptoms 1 week later, and died on 19 May.

    There is no requirement that Ebola incidents be reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) if the incident is not a threat to public health. The lab sought help from WHO and other BSL-4 labs on 17 May, followed by a conference call the next day with a WHO-recommended doctor. Presnyakova appeared “quite stable,” the official says, but her condition deteriorated rapidly overnight and she died the next morning.

    Some press reports suggested that Vektor might have been able to save her life if it had contacted WHO sooner. But Vektor officials say that she was given the appropriate level of care, and WHO spokesperson Richard Thompson says, “They did all they could do, as far as we can tell.”

    Vektor says an internal inquiry will issue a public report in mid-June.

  2. BioShield Heads to President's Desk

    After a yearlong delay, the U.S. Senate last week unanimously passed Project BioShield, a 10-year, $5.6 billion plan to develop and stockpile vaccines and drugs to protect Americans against biological and nuclear attacks. The House has already approved a similar measure, and President George W. Bush is eagerly awaiting a final version of the bill.

    BioShield is designed to give financial reassurances to small biotech and pharmaceutical companies that are nervous about investing in products—from anthrax vaccines to “dirty bomb” drugs—with a limited market. “It guarantees that any company that develops a successful new product for these threats will find a willing buyer in the federal government,” says Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). BioShield also streamlines the approval process for new antiterror drugs and, in an emergency, allows the government to distribute experimental medicines.

    Industry groups applauded the move, but some want more protection from legal liability. Lawmakers—including Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT)are already working on follow-up legislation, dubbed BioShield II, to address such issues.

  3. Lawyer Gets Top Science Post

    NEW DELHI—A prominent lawyer has been appointed India's new science minister. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week appointed Congress Party spokesperson Kapil Sibal to oversee the new government's science, technology, and oceans portfolio.

    Sibal, 56, holds a law degree from Harvard University and is well known in India for his work on AIDS policy. He also sits on the board of the New York-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Sibal told Science that he hopes to revamp India's system for assessing genetically modified products and would seek new rules to foster greater use of animal trials. “It is absurd to [use] humans [as] guinea pigs,” he said.

    Although Sibal has little technical training, researchers are happy with the appointment. Sibal is “a breath of fresh air,” says polymer engineer Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi.

  4. UC Faculty Back Bid for Two Weapons Labs

    Faculty support for the University of California's (UC's) management of two nuclear weapons laboratories is growing. A poll of 3271 UC faculty members released last week found that 67% favored having the university system enter a pending competition for contracts to manage the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. That reverses a similar 1990 poll, in which 64% opposed continued management of the labs, which UC has run for 60 years.

    The new poll, conducted by the academic senate, did identify some apprehension. Three-quarters of the faculty expressed concerns about plans to build plutonium “pits”—the heart of nuclear weapons—at Los Alamos. “Clearly, even those faculty supportive of the labs find weapons-component manufacturing a bitter pill to swallow,” said astronomer George Blumenthal, vice chair of the senate body.

    Meanwhile, a U.S. National Research Council panel on laboratory contracting said earlier this month that a single government committee overseeing a simultaneous competition of both contracts was the best way to pick a contractor “most likely to maintain the coordination between the labs.” Last November, a DOE advisory panel came to the opposite conclusion, saying a double competition might be too much to pull off for the department and interested bidders. A decision is expected later this year.

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