Science in Society Archive

Biodefence Contravenes Biosafety

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on mounting tension between civil society watchdogs and secrecy surrounding biodefence labs, which provides a test case for how much civil society is entitled to know about biodefence research

For nearly a year since 16 September 2002, the Sunshine Project and other civil society watchdogs on bioweapons research in the United States have tried to get information on the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), including its list of members, policies, minutes of meetings and documents on decisions made. UTMB is one of the intended 'biodefence' level 4 labs that will do research on the most deadly pathogens (see previous article). The watch-dog organisations want to ensure that biodefence projects do not undermine arms control treaties nor endanger communities that surround the facilities conducting biodefence research.

Under the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines, the research institution funded by the NIH is encouraged, though not required, to open its Institutional Biosafety Committee meetings to the public. However, when requested, the institution is required to make available to the public all IBC meeting minutes and any documents submitted to or received from funding agencies. The institution is also required to file an annual report with the NIH, which includes a roster of all IBC members with biographical sketches.

Furthermore, all NIH funded projects involving recombinant DNA techniques must comply with the NIH guidelines, and non-compliance may result in suspension, limitation or termination of financial assistance, or a requirement for prior NIH approval of any or all recombinant DNA projects at the institution.

Between 16 September 2002 and 23 Jan 2003, 4 requests for information were sent by the coalition of public watchdogs to UTMB by e-mail and/or fax, to which no response, or no germane response were made. On 18 Feburary 2003, an open letter was sent to UTMB, to request that the UTMB pledges that its Center for Biodefense "will maintain a fully transparent Biosafety Committee that will review and (dis)approve all projects to be conducted in the BL3 and BL4 facilities, and that all Biosafety Committee documentation will be made concurrently available to the entire public, and that any member of the public will have the right to attend all portions of all committee meetings".

On 27 February, this same request was filed under Texas Public Information Act, and forwarded by UTMB to Richard Moore, UTMB Vice President for Business and Administration. Moore's job duties include appointing members of the UTMB IBC. But UTMB responded by denying that a record exists on the institutional affiliations and qualifications of the IBC members.

Another request for the same was filed under the Texas Public Information Act on 3 July 2003. The final disposition of this request is awaiting a ruling by the Texas Attorney General scheduled to be made on or before 22 September 2003. There is currently a stand-off between the two sides. Despite repeated e-mails and telephone calls, UTMB has refused to release any information to the coalition.

On 6 August, the coalition of bioweapons watchdogs issued a press release calling for the NIH to suspend biodefence funding for UTMB over its secrecy concerning its research on biological weapons agents and its refusal to comply with federal biosafety guidelines. "The short-term cost to UTMB could be as high as $250 million and bruised ambitions. But the long-term benefits for all of establishing higher standards of public accountability at institutions conducting biodefense research," says the watchdog coalition, "will be enhanced peace, security, and safety in the US and around the world."

This latest move came when Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project petitioned Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allerby and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to suspend its consideration of UTMB's applications for a federally-funded BioSafety Level 4 'hot zone' lab and a regional biodefence research consortium. Also, on 4 August, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas filed a legal brief with the Texas Attorney General supporting the coalition's demand that UTMB stop resisting public disclosure of its biosafety committee records.

The watchdogs do not oppose biodefence research, and are not accusing UTMB of developing biological weapons. But they insist that secrecy is the greatest enemy of biosecurity, or biosafety. They are seeking maximum transparency in all biodefence labs because openness will give better protection to the communities that surround the 'hot zones' and will help the US come into compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the critical international treaty that prohibits development of biological weapons.

The coalition is active across the country. UTMB has been singled out for this action because its transparency and biosafety policies are particularly unacceptable. Since September 2002, it has refused to substantively answer at least nine requests for information about its biosafety policies. In the course of seeking a 100% exemption from public disclosure of information about its biosafety committee, UTMB has even misled the Texas Attorney General with respect to federal laboratory safety regulations.

UTMB told the Texas Attorney General that its IBC was a "medical committee" established to monitor experiments on human subjects. This is not true. In fact, the IBC is set up under a completely different set of federal rules that relate to protecting people and the environment from being harmed by the escape of hazardous GMOs - in this case, extraordinarily dangerous GMOs developed in research on biological weapons agents.

This is an important test case for how much US citizens are allowed to know regarding biodefence research.

Dr. Clarence Peters, director for biodefence at the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at UTMB, told United Press International that releasing the minutes would violate new privacy and security laws.

"The reason is that we have some new things that have come along since the [NIH] guidelines were promulgated. We have the Homeland Security Act, and the Texas Homeland Security Act - not the same as the federal one - the USA Patriot Act, the Texas Public Information Act and the Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act. If you get crosswise of some of those you go to jail."

The minutes and other committee documents are supposed to be public under well-established guidelines issued by the NIH, in place since 1994, which apply to any NIH-funded research, even research funded in part.

Peters said, however, that UTMB had been told specifically not to release the information by the Texas Attorney General. But although the Attorney General supported UTMB's assertion that the material was exempt from release to the public, the ruling was not based on security or privacy grounds, but on UTMB's claims of exemption under Texas law protecting commercially valuable information.

NIH failed to respond to repeated requests for information on the guidelines and procedures regarding the withholding of funds.

The coalition of bioweapons watchdogs is following other biodefence projects across the country, including the US Army's Dugway Proving Ground (Dugway, UT), and proposed Biosafety Level 4 labs in Boston, MA, Davis, CA, and Hamilton, MT. It is also engaged with the Department of Energy over its plans to build Biosafety Level 3 labs at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (Livermore, CA) and Los Alamos National Lab (Los Alamos, NM).

More information can be found on the Sunshine Project website

Article first published 28/08/03

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