U.S. Biochemical Research


or most nonscientists, the
word biochemical causes our brains to shut down and skip over whatever
scientific “gobbledygook” follows. Combined, however,
with “good enough for government work,” a catch-phrase
for sloppy bureaucracy that can be shrugged off in most areas, it
becomes perilous because today’s biochemical research is perilous



side from the real concern of clinical trials
on sentient beings without their full and informed consent—be
they animals, prisoners, soldiers, residents of domestic and foreign
ghettos, or undergraduates—humans live longer and better today
due to advances from medical research, which has given us such benefits
as antibiotics, AIDS medications, and vaccines for polio, measles,
and smallpox. 

Because such research entails working with dangerous diseases, we
have supervisory bodies to oversee and control safety. In the United
States this is handled by the National Institute of Health (NIH),
part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of
NIH’s four stated goals is to exemplify and promote the highest
level of scientific integrity, public accountability, and social
responsibility in the conduct of science. The NIH issues guidelines
for labs operating with federal funds, including making public their
plans and operations and publishing minutes of laboratory safety
committee meetings, as required by U.S. law. The NIH has the power
to shut them down if they do not comply. All good. 

The Bad 


hree examples (of many) of what can happen
without careful supervision: the anthrax attacks in October 2001,
believed to have come accidentally or on purpose from a Ft. Detrick
laboratory; the Meridian Biosciences Inc. scare in 2005 that sent
3,700 samples of a potentially dangerous flu to labs around the
world; and a near miss by the University of Texas in April 2006
that could have released a mix of common human influenza genes with
those of bird. 

Is the supervision adequate? The Sunshine Project, an NGO watchdog
group in Germany and the United States, is now conducting a second
survey of nearly 400 U.S. institutional biosafety committees (IBC).
These committees, maintained at labs conducting federally-funded
biotechnology research, have been established to protect people
and the environment from risks of biotechnology experiments. In
the course of conducting the IBC survey, the Sunshine Project has
encountered a number of biosafety problems in research involving
potential biological weapons agents. These include: physical issues
at high containment laboratories, risky experiments approved with
dubious safety precautions and/or inadequate IBC review, and dysfunctional and otherwise non-compliant committees. 

In the first study, it found 113 university, government, hospital,
and corporate laboratories engaged in research that refused to disclose
what they were doing and what safety measures they were taking as
required by federal rules. 

What might they be working on? One possibility stems from the real
fear of a mutation of bird flu that could be humanly contagious,
which has all and sundry busily mixing and matching common influenza
strains or genetically engineered strains with the deadly H5N1 bird
flu. A mistake or accident could lead to an unpredictable flu strain
that would cause the very human epidemic they are supposedly trying
to avoid. 

Another is the questionable resurrection of the deadly 1918 influenza
strain, being studied in Atlanta and at a Canadian BSL-4 in Winnipeg,
but probably also in Madison, Wisconsin (Kawaoka), Seattle, Washington
(Katze), Athens, Georgia (USDA flu lab), New York City (Mt. Sinai
Hospital), and perhaps Washington, DC/Bethesda, Maryland (Taubenberger),
and other places. 

Still another is the possible synthesis of the smallpox virus. Last
year, two years after Congress banned this synthesis, a federally
appointed panel recommended that the law be dropped. 

This is potentially dangerous stuff, in dire need of supervision.
So why are the (at least) 113 labs not accountable? It’s not
that some of these labs are hiding the minutes of their bio-safety
meetings, but that the committees simply have never met or, when
they have met, their minutes say nothing of consequence. Edward
Hammond of the Sunshine Project questioned the NIH director in November
asking for accountability. To date, he has had no response. This
is bad. 

The Monstrous 


s with much of what we’ve been living
through with Bush, we have the Reagan legacy to blame as well. Secretly
disregarding the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
of 1972, the Reagan administration advanced research into germ warfare
and sold disease-causing microbes, including anthrax, to Saddam
Hussein, which he later used in his war against Iran. 

In 1986, 14 years after signing the convention, the government gave
various U.S. universities $42 million to develop infectious diseases
and toxins, hoping for strains of anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Japanese
encephalitis, tularemia, shigella, botulin, and Q fever. 

The U.S. has what is believed to be the world’s second largest
stockpile of chemical weapons, nerve and choking agents among them,
not counting run-of-the-mill crowd control chemicals such as tear
gas and pepper spray. The U.S. was committed to destroying these
by 2004 and one would like to believe that it did, but it has not
permitted any international supervisory group to verify that they
were indeed destroyed. (Russia has the most and also promised to
destroy them.) 

assures us that the U.S. maintains it does not have a stockpile
of biological weapons, although it admits pursuing “defensive”
biological research. Aside from the question of when and why biological
weaponry would be used for defense, Francis Boyle, the professor
who drafted the 1989 congressional Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism
Act, states the Pentagon “is now gearing up to fight and ‘win’
biological warfare” with two national strategy directives that
Bush adopted in 2002 without “public knowledge and review.” 


he Bush administration, always
going one worse than Reagan, took the teeth out of the international
inspection system for biological laboratories in 2001 and, although
the 1925 Geneva Convention banning biological agents still exists,
Guantanamo Bay has shown us what heed the White House pays to the
Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, the 1972 BTWC is still valid and
without exemption and the Pentagon knows it, so the lexicon writers
who gave us “collateral damage” are simply declaring research
“non-lethal,” thereby creating an imaginary grey area
between what is permitted and what is not weapons research. 

In its coverage of a controversial Boston University laboratory,

Boston Globe

revealed that there were 335 labs in the
United States registered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention to handle deadly biological agents such as anthrax,
ebola, and smallpox, as well as 75 other labs registered with the
U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service. More than 7,200 scientists and lab workers are cleared
to work in the United States with live anthrax alone; not to mention
a likely U.S. Army plan for more foreign-based labs (they already
exist in Egypt, Peru, Italy, Indonesia, and Germany). A current
Corps of Engineers solicitation for design services suggests this,
offering $3 million contracts over the 3-year life of the contract. 

Then there is the fascinating field of recombinant DNA. What scientists
are doing with it, however, frightened the National Research Council’s
Executive Committee enough in 2004 to strongly recommend that NIH
establish a review system for these “experiments of concern.”
The concerns involved experiments that would demonstrate how to: 

  • render a vaccine ineffective (such as vaccine-resistant


  • confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral

  • enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a non-pathogen virulent 

  • increase transmissibility 

  • alter host range of a pathogen 

  • evade diagnostic/detection modalities (microencapulation and/or
    alteration of gene sequence to avoid established molecular methods) 

  • weaponization of a biological agent or toxin, including environmental
    stabilization (such as synthesis of the smallpox virus) 

probable response to this, the government is supposedly developing
an “oversight” commission through the National Science
Advisory Board on Biosecurity. But on October 25 the NSABB working
group “moved to creatively thwart its charge. Although it was
formed to recommend biosecurity rules to govern the new field of
synthetic biology, the working group will instead assault regulations
of a wide range of biodefense and biotech risks…. The working
group’s outlook is more political than technical. Its science
is a veneer that disguises the maturing political muscle of a constituency
of bioscientists that has become accustomed, perhaps addicted, to
lavish federal biodefense funding” according to the Sunshine

In sum, in defiance of international accords and ignoring congressional
and sane scientific attempts at regulation, our government is experimenting
with biological and chemical weapons of unbelievable danger to humankind
probably in a lab near you, including creating and testing “non-lethal”
hardware that can deliver the full spectrum of such weapons. This
is monstrous. 


Cositore has been a journalist and translator/rewriter in Havana,
Cuba for over eight years.