Suddenly, bio-defence is the buzzword in hundreds of universities, government laboratories and health departments across the United States. Does it make the United States and the world a safer place? Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.
A few scattered reports appeared in the Boston Globe in January 2003 that Boston University Medical Centre plans to build a $1.6 billion biological weapons research facility in the city centre. In February, a proposal went to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases (NIAID), the federal institution charged with developing 'centres of excellence' in biological defence research. These Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) facilities - designed for research on the most dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola virus, for which there are no known cures or treatments - are the centrepieces of the Bush administration's strategy to counter bio-terrorism.
There are currently four BSL4 facilities in the country: two outside Washington DC, one in Atlanta, and one in San Antonio. On 20 March, a package containing the West Nile virus exploded in a Federal Express building in Columbus, Ohio, exposing workers to possible infection, and the offices had to be evacuated. In December 2002, power failed for three hours at an infectious disease laboratory at Plum Island, New York, undermining the containment systems and workers had to resort to sealing the doors with duct tape as air compressors failed.
Peter Shorrett, Director of Programs of Boston-based Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), said, "One high-level government scientist recently said to CRG that the siting of this facility could create a recipe for disaster." Modelling systems at the US Army and Federal Emergency Management Agency predict a ten to twenty mile downwind dispersion radius in case of an accidental or intentional release of biological agents contained in the Boston University facility, thereby exposing millions of local inhabitants to dangerous infectious agents. Researchers exposed to biological agents could also pose a risk to residents. According to federal guidelines, Level 4 pathogens pose "a high risk of exposure and infection to personnel, the community and the environment."
There is also a danger that researchers will be trained in precisely the techniques needed for bio-terrorism. The post-September 11 anthrax attacks have been conclusively traced to the federal bio-defence laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, according to Peter Shorrett and others.
As part of $6 billion-plus expansion of the US bio-defence program, some 40 new and upgraded 'hot zones' have been proposed across the country. These involve not only the established bio-weapons research labs such as Fort Detrick National Institute of Health, and Department of Defence facilities, but also the Department of Energy's former nuclear weapons installations such as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, and biomedical and genomics research departments in top universities: Harvard, John Hopkins, University of California, University of Illinois, University of Texas.
This new generation of bio-defence research will be subject to little oversight. Under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS), much defence-related research and development will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and hence there will be little or no mandatory public disclosure. Originally, much of NIAID was to come under the DHS umbrella; this was blocked by Congressional Democracts, but could change during the current legislative session.
After the revelations in 2001 of three previously classified projects in the United States, one of which involved the production of a genetically engineered anthrax strain resistant to existent vaccines, and another the development of a model bioweapon delivery system, arms control experts and health and safety watchdog groups are deeply concerned that secrecy at these labs will undermine US compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. It would serve to further blur the fuzzy distinction between defence and offence research, result in covering up accidents, and risks to surrounding communities.
"The problem with bio-defence research is that it is hard to distinguish from bio-weapons research," said Ed Hammond at the 7th Bio-devastation conference held in St. Louis Missouri May 16-18, 2003. "In order to create vaccines against deadly biological agents, you have to create the biological agents themselves. It not only increases the chance of acts of bio-terrorism, accidents are bound to happen."
Dangerous biological agents are created even in apparently legitimate research to find vaccines against major diseases. Researchers have created a deadly chimera monkey-human AIDS virus, or SHIV, that kills in days, which is routinely used as a challenge virus to test vaccines against the human aids virus HIV.
The University of California at Davis (UCD), too, wishes to build BSL4 laboratory. Some BSL4 labs, including that proposed by UCD, deliberately infect animals with disease. In February, UCD's proposal came under intense fire from community activists. UCD only consulted its neighbours in the final days before submitting its BSL4 proposal, when it sought a letter of support from the Davis City Council.
Davis citizens were angered when the story that a monkey had escaped from the UCD's primate breeding facility, which rears animals for bio-defence experiments. University officials have covered up the incident for ten days, until a whistle blower leaked the story to the local paper. UCD says that the rhesus monkey - which remains at large - is disease-free. But why did the University keep the escape secret then?
"This incident did a lot to draw attention to UCD's proposal for a BSL4 lab, and may have dealt it a death blow," said Nancy Price of the campaign to Stop the UCD Biolab Now! But she has still to find any of the scientists involved who would speak to her.
Davis Mayor Susie Boyd said she personally supports UCD, but because of community opposition, has joined opponents on the City Council and 'disinvited' UCD's project from the city. UCD's workers allied in the Professional and Technical Employees Union also decided against the BSL4 proposal. The Union represents laboratory workers and animal handlers.
Some academic institutes are keeping even the fact that they are seeking a new bio-defence lab a secret, such as the New York State Department of Health's Wadworth Center and Rensselaer Polytechnic Insititute.
At the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB), officials are quietly retreating from a pledge made in 2001 that their BSL4 facility will not conduct classified work and will be "wide open and above board".
In early February, a group of non-profit watchdogs began sending a series of open letters to proposed bio-defence labs asking them to commit in writing, to policies that prohibit all classified research and ensure transparency of their operations.
They are calling on bio-defence labs to make a "no secrets" pledge. So far they have contacted four proposed BSL4 bio-defence labs - UCD, UTMB Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, and Boston University. Elements of the pledge include a commitment to not conduct classified research or permit it in their facilities, and to operate completely transparent biosafety committees.
ISIS has consistently said that there is no effective defence against bio-weapons, particularly in the era of genetic engineering. This level of investment in bio-defence laboratories is not only a public hazard on a global scale, it is a phenomenal waste of public money that should have been spent on providing much needed health prevention and healthcare, and dealing with real health threats from infectious and chronic diseases.
Vaccines themselves, the main bio-defence agents, though enormously profitable for the pharmaceutical industry, could actually be major threats to health (see " Health & the fluid genome " I-SIS miniseries).
Article first published 14/07/03
Shorett P. The $1.6 billion secret. GeneWatch 2003, 16 (1) May-June, 9-10.
"Loose monkey teaches biodefense lab a lesson on the hazards of secrecy" Citizens Education Project, Salt Lake City, UK, Los Alamos Study Group, Santa Fe, NM, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington, DC, The Sunshine Project, Austin, TX, Tri-Valley CAREs, Livermore, CA, 26 Feb., 2003.
Backyard Bioweapons: Biolabs, Biodefence, Biotech & Billions of $, 7th International Gaterhing on Biodevastation, May 16-18, 2003, St. Louis, Missouri.
Sunshine Project www.sunshine-project.org/biodefense/openletters.html .
Many articles in past issues of Science in Society on Institute of Science in Society website www.i-sis.org.uk
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