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Synthesis/Regeneration 34   (Spring 2004)

US Leads in Production of Bioterror Diseases

by Edward Hammond, The Sunshine Project

In the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax letters, the United States began a massive expansion of its biodefense program. Best estimates are that more than $11 billion has been appropriated by Congress for new biodefense research, although nobody can be quite sure of the amount because biodefense appropriations are spread across multiple federal agencies and include secret “black budget” funds. It is, far and away, the largest research program on biological weapons agents in the world.

The federal appropriations will pay for construction of several new biodefense Biosafety Level 3 and 4 laboratories in locations across the country. These labs are the “hot zones” where scientists handle the world’s most dangerous diseases. More money is on the way, including President Bush’s proposed “BioShield” project for the government to buy new biowarfare vaccines. Bioshield alone will cost more than $5 billion. But the biotech and pharmaceutical industries want more than the money; they are also demanding that they not be held liable for the effects of their products if they cause some of the vaccinated to become ill or die.

In light of the international and US public health situation, the biodefense program is perverting health priorities. An equivalent investment in international public health would save literally millions of lives across the world by providing clean drinking water, basic childhood vaccines, and improved primary and preventative health care. Even if we ploughed this money into non-biodefense high-tech medical research, a reasonable assessment of public health priorities would earmark it for more bona fide public health threats, such as HIV/AIDS, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, and hepatitis C.

Beyond the shortsightedness and injustice of prioritizing “bioterror diseases” over basic health needs in the US and abroad, there are many more reasons to be deeply concerned about the biodefense program. Many aspects of biodefense research are “dual use,” meaning that they also generate knowledge and techniques that can be used for offense. Many vaccine facilities, for example, are very well suited to produce offensive weapons.

Many aspects of biodefense research … can be used for offense.

Now it has been revealed that the US has recently built model biological bombs, an anthrax production facility, and even, for no justifiable reason, produced large quantities of weaponized anthrax.

The US is investing in so-called “non-lethal” biological and chemical weapons, and is proposing to blast Colombia and Afghanistan with a biological weapon that kills coca and opium poppy. As a consequence, the international community understandably has less and less confidence that the US biodefense program is peaceable. We presently run a very serious risk of tripping off a “biodefense race,” and because biodefense and offense cannot be easily separated, a very dangerous situation is emerging.

Listening to Bush administration rhetoric about “weapons of mass destruction,” the average citizen might think that we are leading the international charge against bioweapons. This is far from the truth.

More than any other country, it is the US that stands in the way of international cooperation to prevent biowarfare. In 2001 it was the US that scuttled six years of negotiations to create an international inspection regime for research on bioweapons agents. The protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention would have increased international confidence by allowing inspectors into biodefense facilities worldwide, to help ensure that they were not engaged in offensive work. Now, having thumbed our nose at international inspectors, we are massively expanding our program, sending a defiant and worrying message to the world.

More than any other country, it is the US that stands in the way of international cooperation to prevent biowarfare.

The use of biotechnology in biodefense research is also cause for concern. Applied to disease agents, genetic engineering can have dangerous and unpredictable results. It can also be used deliberately to make diseases less treatable, more aggressive, and harder to detect. In a well-publicized case from 2001, Australian researchers genetically engineered a form of mousepox (closely related to human smallpox). The virus not only caused a deadly infection in the mice, but its transgenic elements shut down the mouse immune system, rendering them entirely susceptible to the disease.

At the University of Texas medical school in Galveston, researchers plan to genetically engineer influenza (“the flu”). While flu is generally regarded as not extraordinarily dangerous and only requires minimal biosafety procedures, the genetic engineering experiments will “re-assort” flu genes and is considered so dangerous that it will require maximum containment (Biosafety Level 4, the highest level). There are other, safer, ways to research disease than to create such genetically engineered bugs, but we instead pursue the biotech path at great risk.

The security of Biosafety Level 3 and 4 facilities is also a concern. Proponents of the facilities say they have a good safety record and claim that nearby communities have nothing to fear. It is true that on any given day at any given facility the chance of a breach is low, but accidents have occurred and will occur again. In 1994, a researcher walked out of a Yale University lab infected with Brazilian hemorrhagic fever (sabia virus), an extremely rare, extremely dangerous disease. For days, the researcher circulated in Connecticut and Massachusetts, potentially exposing his contacts to the disease, before his symptoms became so acute that he checked into a hospital. In September 2003, after Singapore had been declared SARS-free, a new case was diagnosed there in a microbiologist. The source of his infection was a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory. Fortunately, the new outbreak was contained, but with that city as an international center of air travel, it could easily have spread from Singapore to almost anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

…genetic engineering can…be used deliberately to make diseases less treatable, more aggressive, and harder to detect.

Insisting on transparency in biodefense research is crucial to keeping it safe. First, transparency acts as a restraint on research. A scientist with the public looking over his or her shoulder, probing the rationale for research, is less likely to engage in risky or provocative experiments. Secondly, transparency and public accountability promote peace and security. Because so much biodefense research is “dual use,” third parties need to see information about research and be able to independently decide if it is safe and peaceful. The US does not accept “trust me” assurances about biodefense from other countries and we should not accept them from US biodefense labs.

In 2003 there began a groundswell of public concern about research on bioweapons agents. From Boston to the Bay Area, citizens and non-profits are asking questions and demanding a say in biodefense research. Unfortunately, new federal bioterrorism laws are working in the opposite direction, encouraging more secrecy. And the expansion of biodefense research by unaccountable agencies like the Department of Energy and even the Central Intelligence Agency is deeply worrying.

We are at a crossroads: Do we cooperate with the world to reduce threats and limit research, or do we dive into exploring the darkest applications of biotechnology? Biological security will not be won with cruise missiles, bunker busters, and biotech. Non-profits and citizens need to give biodefense labs a hard time, asking aggressive questions, insisting on access to research plans—especially the records of biosafety committees—and criticizing dangerous research. Biotech and arms control activists can work together to change US policy, to force the US government to stop provocative and secret research and to cooperate with other countries to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. If we fail to do so, genetic tinkering with biological weapons agents may leave a devastating legacy.

[9 apr 04]

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