Maryland should consider registering and licensing certain biological laboratories that handle deadly pathogens not lethal enough to be considered potential biological weapons, a state workgroup suggested Friday.
Such pathogens include the organisms that cause Legionnaire's disease, tuberculosis and rabies. Although less dangerous than the microbes that cause plague and Ebola, these pathogens are sometimes handled under similarly strict laboratory conditions, known as biocontainment, to prevent their release.
The Maryland Biocontainment Laboratories Oversight Workgroup said it was unable to determine how many private biocontainment labs aren't covered by government safety regulations, but that it's possible some exist. They would be labs that don't receive federal funding, and which work with pathogens or toxins not regulated by the federal government as "select agents."
Licensing such labs "may be a good intermediate step to pursue in an effort to determine the scope of this industry and potentially what risks these biocontainment laboratories pose to the communities in which they are located," the report said.
The panel discouraged creation of a state inspection-and-review process as costly to the state and burdensome to the biotechnology industry.
"Therefore it could be considered a barrier to the establishment of new laboratories as well as a financial barrier for those laboratories currently located in Maryland," the report said.
"Requiring registration and licensing could avoid any negative impact on the state's growing biotechnology industry while answering a demand for more public information about the labs," the report said.
"The public is clearly concerned that local and state government does not know addresses for these laboratories and the infectious agents and biohazardous materials being handled,'' the report said.
The state Senate Finance Committee asked the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to convene the workgroup in response to a bill introduced last year by Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick, to establish state oversight of the labs. Young later agreed to withdraw the bill to allow the workgroup to study the issue.
Young's district includes neighborhoods near Fort Detrick, home to the Army's flagship biological defense laboratory and a magnet for private biotech firms.
"I think people, if they're in the community, they need to know what's going on," Young said. "If there's something dangerous going on in there, somebody needs to know about that."
Philip Schiff, chief executive of the Tech Council of Maryland, said Young's bill would have made Maryland's laws more stringent than federal laws and created redundant oversight of biocontainment labs.
He said the trade group "believes state oversight will harm the competitiveness of Maryland's life sciences and biodefense industries unnecessarily by imposing standards not required by other states."