A biodefense lab may soon be coming to a campus or community near you, if one hasn’t already. These labs are the most noticeable evidence of the government’s rapidly expanding biotechnology complex. Although the labs do some indispensable work in the medical realm, their rapid expansion is also tied directly to “fighting terrorism.” The rationale behind the expansion of biodefense labs is that terrorists or “rogue states” could use biological or chemical weapons against the US. To be prepared for and effectively deal with such an attack, researchers at biodefense labs must research and experiment with potential biological agents in order to devise antidotes and develop counter-terror measures.
In actuality much of the work being done at these so-called “hot” labs threatens international treaties, public health and, at current levels of funding, is wasteful. Enveloped in a shroud of secrecy and missing proper oversight, public debate on whether or not the labs are fulfilling their mission is squelched. The truth is that what’s being justified as making us safer and more secure may be achieving the opposite.
According to Ari Schuler, an analyst at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there has been $14.5 billion spent on civilian biodefense programs since 2001. The fiscal year 2005 budget is 18 times that of 2001. Adjusted for inflation, annual federal spending on biodefense is greater than money spent on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.
As of July 2004, 11,119 workers and 317 labs have been approved to work on germ experiments. And these numbers continue to grow. Much of the federal spending blitz is directed towards building a plethora of new labs for biodefense.
Known by their designation “BSL”, short for BioSafety Level, biological agent laboratories range from one to four, four being the highest designation given to labs that handle the world’s deadliest diseases. Two massive new BSL-4 labs are being built at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and at Boston University. In all, there are at least 24 major planned BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. Nearly 50 already exist.
Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University, believes the legitimate needs of biodefense “can be met entirely with the construction of a single large facility in a secure environment,” rather than with many large and small facilities across the nation.
An experienced anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University concurs with Ebright’s assessment of the biodefense boom. Martin E. Hugh-Jones says, on the whole, “I think we’ve spent an awful lot of money, and I’m not sure we’re much better off.”
The primary motive for universities seeking a biodefense research is monetary. Since the dry-up in corporate funding for biotechnology, federal funding is picking up the slack and shaping university research. The Austin-American Statesman, noted that “grants for [biotechnology] research and development from industry dropped by nearly 14% last year to about $26 million. But thanks to a 12% increase in federal research funding last year, the total amount of money spent on research at [the University of Texas] continued to rise.” The same article concluded, “In university laboratories across the country, such things as declining private funding and changing national priorities are driving a fundamental shift in research and development.”
The flood of federal funding for biodefense research is skewing researchers in biological fields away from research which may benefit society more, such as cures for cancer or HIV. The nature of classified biodefense research leads to the construction of barriers that inhibit the free exchange of knowledge in the university, threatening academic freedom.
And while the US is pouring billions into hot labs manipulating obscure diseases and making bio-weapons, the ball has been dropped on a mundane problemâ€”having enough flu shotsâ€”a common predictable disease that costs the lives of 20,000 Americans a year. This begs the question: What kind of bio-”defense” does the US really have?
The biggest problem with bio-”defense” labs is that they are contradictory in nature. In short, biodefense labs may actually be heightening the risk for people to be harmed by biological weapons. With more labs and more people working with deadly agents the chances for biological accidents and public exposure are multiplied. Not to mention the fact that the labs themselves become ideal targets for a terrorist attack.
Ebright agrees, saying that “With the expansion of the biodefense effort â€“ especially to institutions and individuals without experience with lethal biological agents â€“ accidents are more likely.”
Likewise the potential for terrorism may be increased with the proliferation of these labs. First of all, the number of persons with the skills necessary to create, cultivate and weaponize lethal agents will drastically increase. In fact, this danger has already become a reality. For example, the weapons-grade anthrax used in the anthrax mailings after 9/11 was almost definitely from a domestic source, probably from the US military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Absent from most analyses of bioterrorism is the recognition that national biological programs are the source for many agents, and provide the training to weaponize and deliver agents â€” the real trick with successfully executing biological warfare. The possibility of similar incidents occurring in the future is now increasing.
The fact that many of these new labs are being located in densely populated areas, such as the BSL-4 being built in Boston, makes the potential consequences of an accident even greater. Alan Zelicoff, a biodefense consultant at ARES Corp., a risk analysis firm, bluntly says, “These facilities probably ought not be located in a heavily-populated area. How do you contain smoke? [referring to the accidental release of aerosolized agents]”
Furthermore, the mechanisms meant to insure public safety are hardly functioning, if at all, at many universities. Dozens of Institutional Biosafety Committees meant to protect the public and environment from biotechnology experiments are often derelict in their duties â€” keeping inadequate records and almost never meeting. Under federal guidelines, minutes of IBC meetings “shall be made available to the public upon request.” But the Sunshine Project, a biodefense watchdog group, has run into numerous difficulties in achieving disclosure from several â€“ naming Princeton University, the University of Delaware, the University of Vermont and the University of Texas-Southwestern IBCs as the worst. According to Edward Hammond, Sunshine Project director, “these universities’ biosafety committees have nothing but contempt for public disclosure. They black out their meeting minutes or write down virtually nothing, so as to frustrate public access.”
With the kinds of agents and work going on at biodefense facilities the public should be wary. This last March Southern Research Institute of Frederick, Maryland accidentally shipped vials of live anthrax to a California facility. Another incident occurred last year when a loose monkey escaped from a University of California at Davis facility that prepares animals for biodefense experiments. Also, last year a Texas Technological University scientist lost plague samples prompting a bioterrorism scare.
Texas Tech is an example of a university with a strong relationship to the US biodefense program. The US Army Soldier Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM) funds 75% of Texas Tech’s gentle-sounding Institute for Environmental and Human Health’s research contracts. Some of this research may be violating the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits offensive biological weapons development. SBCCOM projects include making toxic cocktails by mixing different biological agents together. This particular program does not appear to respond to any existing threat and can be construed as furthering research and development of US offensive bio-weapons.
Other US programs chipping away at the BWC include an agricultural biowarfare program, developed in part at the University of Montana, geared toward forcibly eradicating coca fields in Colombia as part of the “War on Drugs” in that country. If used in Colombia or anywhere else, this genetically-engineered fungal agent threatens to cause serious environmental damage and health problems in the local populations subjected to it.
Another is a Pentagon “non-lethal” chemical/biological weapons program that the Sunshine Project has uncovered through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. (Biological/chemical “non-lethal” weapons range from calmatives, such as those used in the Moscow theater hostage disaster, where over 100 people died due to this agent’s use, to ethnically- targeted malodorants â€“ foul-smelling chemicals.) Follow-up FOIA requests by the Sunshine Project have been excessively delayed and received less disclosure from the Department of Defense. And after urging the Chemical Weapons Convention to investigate these “non-lethal” programs, the US State Department blocked Sunshine Project accreditation to attend future CWC meetings.
Such attempts to stamp out public knowledge and the criticism that often stems from it are pure hubris. The biodefense boom is a waste of money that not only breaks international law and threatens humanity abroad, but also multiplies the possibility that the American public may be exposed to lethal diseases. While “hot” labs proliferate like suburban tract homes, crucial public debate and accountability are missing. One can only hope we have these debates before it’s too late.
Nick Schwellenbach is a former member of University of Texas Watch (www.utwatch.org), a student-based watchdog organization. He is currently a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Project On Government Oversight (www.pogo.org).