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Biological Weapons Under Development in the U.S.

[ The articles below are about the infusion of federal funds for “‘hot labs’ designed to combat bioterrorism and house the world’s deadliest germs”:

A growing number of scientists complain that the $6 billion earmarked by Congress for fighting bioterrorism is excessive, is being doled out with little oversight and is detracting from efforts to combat problems that are much more deadly — for example, AIDS and malaria, which are already killing millions of people.

Others worry that the buildup actually threatens national security, by arming more people with the know-how to construct bioweapons, and perhaps even sparking a new biological arms race since two of the hot labs are to be built inside national weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, N.M…. In Boston, activists are trying to halt construction of a $168 million lab at Boston University, to be built in the city’s south end. They fear something akin to what health inspectors suspect occurred recently in China: that SARS escaped from a Beijing laboratory and made its way into the Chinese heartland, contributing to the latest eruption of the sometimes fatal disease.

“If any other country presented this list of tasks, the U.S. intelligence community would say it’s an offensive program,” said Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland scholar who has studied biowarfare for more than 30 years.

Thanks to Popi and Tom Natsoulas for passing the articles along. –BL ]

Fears Rise With ‘Hot Lab’ Building Boom

April 30, 2004 | Associated Press

by PAUL ELIAS, Biotechnology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — From Boston to Livermore, Calif., “hot labs” designed to combat bioterrorism and house the world’s deadliest germs are being planned and constructed with a huge cash infusion from the federal government.

Supporters of the unprecedented building boom say the new or expanded high-containment labs — there are at least 18 — are essential to national security in a post-Sept. 11 world.

But as the labs rise on college campuses and government installations across the country, so do concerns about safety and security.

Neighbors fear that some frightening variant of Ebola virus, plague or other deadly disease could be loosed into their backyards, and are filing lawsuits and lobbying politicians to halt construction.

A growing number of scientists complain that the $6 billion earmarked by Congress for fighting bioterrorism is excessive, is being doled out with little oversight and is detracting from efforts to combat problems that are much more deadly — for example, AIDS and malaria, which are already killing millions of people.

Others worry that the buildup actually threatens national security, by arming more people with the know-how to construct bioweapons, and perhaps even sparking a new biological arms race since two of the hot labs are to be built inside national weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, N.M.

Universities in Boston, Pittsburgh, Texas and elsewhere have already won grants to build labs, some in urban neighborhoods.

In Boston, activists are trying to halt construction of a $168 million lab at Boston University, to be built in the city’s south end. They fear something akin to what health inspectors suspect occurred recently in China: that SARS escaped from a Beijing laboratory and made its way into the Chinese heartland, contributing to the latest eruption of the sometimes fatal disease.

“It doesn’t belong there. The health and safety risks outweigh the benefits,” said Kyle Loring, an attorney with Roxbury, Mass.-based Alternatives for Community and Environment.

Boston’s mayor and Massachusetts’ governor are convinced the lab will be well protected, and provide a boost to the local economy. Federal officials insist that no deadly germs have ever escaped from U.S. laboratories, and say the planned facilities will be even more secure than their predecessors.

Following such objections, the Bush administration on Wednesday issued a directive that addressed oversight and coordination.

“Under the president’s new national biodefense directive, all of our bioterrorism projects and programs will fall under a coordinated and focused strategic plan that will help maximize our resources, ensure a common unified effort across all federal agencies and address any deficiency that we discover,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said at a news conference Wednesday.

But even some backers of the construction are concerned that the bioweapons defense program, while awash in cash, is lacking in direction and coordination.

“We do need these labs,” said Ken Alibek, a former top scientist in the Soviet biological weapons program who defected to the United States in 1992. “But I’ve never seen any well-defined plan of what exactly we need, how many labs are necessary and what they should be designed to do.”

The government agencies and colleges involved defend their projects as necessary to close the gaps in national defense exposed by the anthrax attacks in 2002. They say more sophisticated labs are needed to combat a range of potential bioweapons — exotic diseases, for example, and genetically engineered bugs designed to evade detection and that can’t be treated by any existing vaccines.

“We do not have the safe and effective vaccines and drugs we need,” said Rona Hirschberg of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the NIH branch driving much of the lab construction. Hirschberg said creating vaccines, antidotes and rapid diagnostic tools are high national security priorities.

However, no one inside or outside of government is sure exactly how many labs are already working with biological material that could be rendered into deadly weapons if obtained by terrorists. Estimates range in the hundreds, even as biotech companies prepare to compete for a new round federal biodefense grants.

The departments of defense, health, homeland security and energy, meanwhile, all have separate plans to fund, expand or build hot labs.

“It has gone wild,” said Barbara Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists, which is working to control the spread of bioweapons. “There’s a frenzy to get federal funds to get these built without having any real plan with what to do with them.”

Marylia Kelley, who heads Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-area group suing the Department of Energy to stop the lab construction, isn’t just concerned about local safety but also about perceptions abroad.

She says “putting a lab like this in a highly secured weapons facility will undoubtedly raise suspicions about its intentions.”

But a Livermore lab spokesman said researchers are simply working with small amounts of biological agents to develop better detection technologies.

“We do not in any way, shape or form conduct bioweapons research,” spokesman Steve Wampler said.


With biodefense plan, fear of repercussions; Critics say Md. lab’s work would pose public threat

April 29, 2004 | Baltimore Sun

by Scott Shane

As President Bush issued a sweeping order to boost the nation’s defenses against bioterrorism, arms control advocates contended yesterday that research planned for a new Department of Homeland Security laboratory at Fort Detrick would violate the international ban on biological weapons and could touch off a global biological arms race.

The research plan for the $200 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) includes laboratory studies of genetically engineered germs and methods to disseminate them as an aerosol spray, according to a February presentation by Lt. Col. George Korch, the center’s deputy director. Such work has not previously been conducted at the Army’s biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, partly to avoid any hint of treaty violations.

“If any other country presented this list of tasks, the U.S. intelligence community would say it’s an offensive program,” said Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland scholar who has studied biowarfare for more than 30 years. Such programs are prohibited by the international Biological Weapons Convention, which the United States ratified in 1975.

Leitenberg and other critics say there is always a chance that newly engineered pathogens could escape from the lab, noting that China is trying to contain a SARS outbreak set off by an infected lab worker. They also say there would be no way to ensure that a disgruntled worker might not use high-tech germs or techniques developed at the lab to launch an attack.

NBACC was created last year and is operating out of temporary offices at Fort Detrick. Construction of its $200 million lab is scheduled to begin later this year at the Frederick Army post.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich said yesterday that everything proposed by NBACC is strictly defensive in purpose, not offensive. The center will study bioforensics, the emerging science of tracing a germ weapon back to its source, and will build a large database of information on all possible biological weapons threats, she said.

But to be able to counter all future biological threats, Petrovich said, the center must explore how bioterrorists might use genetic engineering to make viruses or bacteria more deadly or contagious. Only then can scientists develop new vaccines, drugs or other measures to avert a potential biological catastrophe.

“The mission is actually to identify threats so we can defend against them and protect the American people,” she said.

Not persuaded

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York who heads a bioweapons study group for the Federation of American Scientists, said she did not find such assurances persuasive.

“It sounds like they’re poised for multiple challenges to the Biological Weapons Convention that could provoke a biological arms race, and for activities that could endanger public health,” Rosenberg said, after reviewing Korch’s 34-slide presentation.

But Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, of the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said such judgments are premature.

“I think it’s an overstatement to say, based on this presentation, that NBACC will violate treaties,” Inglesby said. He said he believes the work can be carried out safely and legally as long as there is adequate legal and scientific oversight.

The research proposed by the Homeland Security Department is just one piece of a huge federal biodefense program costing about $6 billion this year, or more than 17 times what the government was spending before 9/11 and the anthrax-letter attacks of 2001 alerted the country to the menace posed by bioterror.

At a news conference yesterday, top Bush administration officials unveiled Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10, which states the president’s view that biological weapons “could cause catastrophic harm” and instructs government agencies to improve defenses.

“From the creation of a biological attack warning system, to an improved distribution system of critical antibiotics and vaccines, this plan charts the course toward our goal of a strong and robust bioterrorism defense,” said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who spoke along with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

The breathtaking increase in biodefense spending has been applauded by public health specialists to the extent that it strengthens protections against natural disease threats. Most health experts say that existing diseases such as AIDS and SARS, along with the potentially devastating threat posed if avian flu mutates and spreads among humans, pose a far graver danger than a man-made biological attack.

Break with past

Federal officials emphasized yesterday the strengthening of everything from food safety inspections to laboratory testing as a result of the biodefense spending. But the aggressive research proposed by the Homeland Security Department on engineered germs and their dispersal marks a significant break with past practices, particularly at Fort Detrick.

One reason some government scientists want to study engineered pathogens is that researchers in Australia accidentally concocted a super-deadly form of mousepox, a mouse disease similar to smallpox, while carrying out an unrelated experiment. Homeland Security officials say they worry that terrorists might try to make similar changes in smallpox or other viruses, including monkeypox, which can infect humans.

The dispute over Homeland Security’s proposed research began when Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University biochemist, discovered a Powerpoint presentation of Korch’s presentation on an obscure Web site. He sent the information to several biological arms control experts who share his view that high-tech research on germ weapons is ill-advised.

Ebright compared the plans to a secret Defense Department program called Project BACHUS, which constructed a mock anthrax plant in Nevada in 1999 with equipment purchased over the Internet. The goal was to see what terrorists might be able to do, but some experts thought the program violated the Biological Weapons Convention.

Homeland Security’s new plan, Ebright said, “is Project BACHUS on steroids. Instead of a temporary installation in the Nevada desert, there will be a permanent installation at Fort Detrick.”

By developing new, more virulent pathogens and the means to deliver them, NBACC would increase the danger to the United States, he said. No security procedures can rule out the possibility a lab worker could get infected and spread disease, as has occurred with SARS in China and before that in Taiwan and Singapore, he said.

Threat of the century

In addition, Ebright said, the program “could provide disgruntled employees with the means and knowledge to mount biological attacks.” FBI investigators appear to believe that the anthrax letters of 2001 were sent not by a foreign terrorist but by someone with a connection to U.S. biodefense programs, he noted.

David Siegrist, an expert on bioterrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., said he shared some of the critics’ concerns about the research.

But he says they underestimate the danger of bioterrorism, which he called “the threat of the 21st century.”

“What I think mostly is that it’s great we’re having this discussion before Homeland Security does the work,” Siegrist said. “It’s a lot better than having them doing secret experiments which everyone finds out about later.”

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