MI5 investigating Al-Qaeda attempt to infiltrate British labs, get killer viruses


MI5 and anti-terrorist police are carrying out secret background checks on thousands of scientists amid fears that Al Qaeda is trying to infiltrate British research laboratories to obtain deadly viruses.

The vetting, which includes checks on family backgrounds, political views and associates, is part of a review of some 800 laboratories in hospitals, universities and private firms where staff have access to incurable viruses such as ebola.


Last night, Whitehall sources confirmed the crackdown by MI5 and the police's National Counter Terrorism Security Office.


Secret background checks are being carried out on thousands of scientists


A series of spot checks and detailed inspections are also being led by experts from the Health and Safety Executive.


Last week one of the HSE's top inspectors revealed details of its investigation, which until now has been highly secret.


Dr Paul Logan, of its Biological Agents Unit, told a Commons sub-committee on biosecurity: "We work very closely with the security services. We advise them on toxins and pathogens.


"They are looking at very different things at the moment in terms of vetting of staff, looking at physical security and how easy it is to break into premises and the wider security issues."


The HSE licences about 340 organisations to work with material, classified "Containment level 3", which can cause severe human disease, may be spread to the community - but can be treated.


It also oversees eight organisations allowed to work with substances classified "Containment level 4" - so-called "Doomsday viruses" which can spread quickly through the population but cannot be treated.

The number of operational laboratories varies enormously depending on what research is being carried out, but between 750 and 800 are now understood to be working with the deadly strains.


Fears about the level of security at Britain's biolabs has been fuelled by terrorist attacks using deadly poisons.


Five people died in America in late 2001 after letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news groups and politicians. The crime remains unsolved.


And in 2003, suspected Al Qaeda terrorist Kamel Bourgass tried to create deadly ricin at a flat in Wood Green, North London.


Anti-terrorist officers who raided it found castor oil beans --the raw material for ricin - along with the equipment to produce the poison, plus recipes for cyanide and botulinum.


Algerian Bourgass went on the run and was cornered in Manchester, where he stabbed DC Stephen Oake to death as he tried to escape. He is now serving life.


There is also concern about the lack of checks previously carried out on university students studying biosciences in Britain.

"Dr Germ" Rihab Taha, who worked on Saddam Hussein's biological weapons programme, studied for her PhD in plant toxins at East Anglia University's School of Biological Sciences in Norwich.

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