The Knesset plenum on Tuesday passed the first law regulating the supervision of civilian research on dangerous bacteria and viruses that could be used as biological weapons. The new law is aimed at preventing the unsupervised development of dangerous diseases, as well as the publication of scientific articles containing sensitive information on biological warfare.
The bill was sponsored by MKs Aryeh Eldad (National Union) and Yuval Steinitz (Likud). The legislation process was delayed for several months so that the conclusions of a joint committee of the National Security Council and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities could be incorporated into the bill.
Eldad said the purpose of the law is to quell fears that "unsupervised scientific research could lead to the development of biological weapons" and that "articles published on biology, microbiology and biotechnology research would be used by terror groups and enemy states." Eldad noted that the law balances security needs with freedom of academic research.
Under the new law, the health minister will establish a supervisory body within the ministry's Office of the Chief Scientist to oversee civilian research into biological pathogens (disease-causing bacteria and viruses).
Any institution seeking to store and to study biological pathogens will have to obtain recognition from the ministry. In addition, it will be required to establish a biological pathogens research committee (similar to the Helsinki committee that regulates human medical trials), whose approval will be mandatory for every study involving these pathogens.
The law categorically prohibits civilian institutions from conducting research "whose sole purpose is to cause or worsen an illness or hamper the ability to prevent or treat an illness." As part of the committees' vetting process for studies, they will examine whether the research involved could increase the harm caused by known diseases, increase the stability of pathogens or make them harder to identify.
Eldad offered an example of a problematic study - "a situation in which [as a result of] the research all the antibiotics stored in Israel are rendered ineffective. [Such a study] would cause grave economic harm and endanger tens of thousands of people," Eldad said. Prof. Eliora Ron of Tel Aviv University, a member of the committee that drafted the law, explained the need for supervision.
"This need arose because it turns out that there are no laws on this issue. People can do all sorts of stupid things with hazardous substances, not through malice but sometimes due to thoughtlessness."
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