The laboratory director of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), Dr. Patrick Fitch, said yesterday that research at the laboratory will not “create threats in order to study them”. This statement is a welcome change from previous presentations about the lab’s mission.
The controversy about the research goals of the NBACC emerged after Lt. Colonel George Korch, Jr., PhD, gave a powerpoint presentation about the facility in February 2004. According to this talk (the slides are available here), part of the NBACC threat assessment mission would include acquiring, growing, modifying, storing, stabilizing, packaging, and dispersing biological threat agents to determine various properties and capabilities. The presentation also states that the facility will “characterize classical, emerging, and genetically engineered pathogens for their biological threat agent potential” through “computational modeling of feasibility, methods, and scale of production.” These statements, if true, meant that portions of the research planned for the facility could be interpreted to be in violation of Article I of the Biological Weapons Convention, which says that signatory states are not “to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain microbial or biological agents, or toxins, that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” From Dr. Fitch’s statements today it appears that the research priorities of NBACC have changed since 2004 to minimize the perception that the U.S. will conduct illegal research at this facility.
Dr. Fitch also said that a majority of the research that will occur at the lab will be unclassified, and he is working to develop a policy that will publicly list all of the projects going on at the NBACC, even if some of the research results remain classified. We’ll have to wait and see if these statements actually come true, but for the time being this seems like a positive development.
Monday’s talk was sponsored by the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Federation of American Scientists has more information about the debate surrounding the NBACC on their website, available here.