ARGUMENT: Improving BiosecurityTwenty Years After the Patriot Act, What Is the Future of Biosecurity?

Published 27 October 2021

The USA Patriot Act was signed into law twenty20 years ago, on 26 October 2001. Yong-Bee Lim, David Gillum, and Kathleen Vogel write Many changes have taken place since 2001, and  “The Patriot Act’s top-down approach cannot fully address this emerging reality, the authors write. Despite twenty years of effort, some old biosecurity issues continue to plague the country, while a whole new biosecurity frontier is opening up.”

The USA Patriot Act was signed into law twenty20 years ago, on 26 October 2001. The law was profoundly shaped by the back-to-back events of the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, but it was deeply rooted in in fears about bioterrorism that had been growing since the 1990s. Yong-Bee Lim, David Gillum, and Kathleen Vogel write in Issues in Science and Technology that this anniversary provides an occasion to reflect on the Patriot Act’s legacy, as well as to imagine and plan for different biosecurity futures.

The authors note that the overall intent of the USA Patriot Act was clear: to prevent terrorism by raising the “barrier to entry” for potential terrorists. At its core, the act responded to two kinds of perceived threats—from outsiders and from insiders—and this dichotomy continues to have repercussions today. “Within the realm of biosecurity, the legislation sought to make it harder for states, terrorists, extremist groups, and lone-wolf actors to acquire dangerous biological materials, while also protecting biological research facilities from insider threats such as disgruntled employees and people with a grudge against biological research,” they write, adding:

Twenty years on, it is time to reflect: How well did this legislation promote or hinder biosecurity over time? What unintended or negative consequences have resulted? Most importantly, to what degree is the United States sufficiently prepared to contend with emerging biosecurity threats in a world that is more technologically advanced, interconnected, and interdependent than ever?

The authors write that in its attempts to control insider bioterror attacks, the implementation of the Patriot Act has triggered a series of unintended negative consequences on the life sciences, greatly disrupting who participates in science, where science is done, and how it is conducted.

Specifically, the Patriot Act and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act of 2002 (PHSBPRA) have imposed significant costs and administrative burdens on scientific institutions that work on the class of harmful pathogens known as select agents. In response, some institutions have chosen not to engage in this research.