Secrecy News

Germs, Viruses, and Secrets

In an awkward and disturbing irony, the most significant bioterrorism incident in the U.S. to date — i.e., the 2001 anthrax attacks — apparently originated in a U.S. military laboratory that was engaged in biological defense research.  Yet the pursuit of such research, and perhaps the associated threat, has continued to expand.

“No one in the Federal Government even knows for sure how many of these labs there are in the United States, much less what research they are doing or whether they are safe and secure,” said Rep. Bart Stupak at a 2007 congressional hearing, the record of which has recently been published.  “What we do know is that the Federal Government has been funding the proliferation of these labs on an unprecedented scale.”

See “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States” (pdf), House Committee on Energy and Commerce, October 4, 2007 (published December 2008).

“High-containment laboratories play a critical role in the biodefense effort, offering the hope of better responses to an attack and a better understanding of the threat posed by bioterrorism,” according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service. “However, they also could increase the risk of a biological attack by serving as a potential source of materials or training.”

One approach to mitigating that risk would be to curtail such research.  Another approach, which is explored in the new CRS report, is to expand oversight of biodefense research facilities.  A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Oversight of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Issues for Congress,” March 5, 2009.

0 thoughts on “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets

  1. I am one of your most ardent fans, but this story, and the whole premise that “silent proliferation” of biolabs is a security threat, is total baloney. A very small handful of scientists with their own agendas cooked up this idea and it has proven resilient to facts.
    These bugs LIVE IN THE WILD!!!!! We can now synthesize many of them from non-living components!!! The labs in question have UPGRADED both security and biosafety procedures involved in handling dangerous pathogens — which are handled daily by many THOUSANDS of clinical labs around the country. Finally, there are hundreds of tissue culture businesses around the world from which one can buy these bugs legally and without the bother of US regulations.
    What is happening is a witch hunt, with bioscience cast as bad guys, and with those working on understanding and countering possible bioweapons as Drs Strangelove. It is one of the most bizarre, anti-intellectual rants of recent years.

  2. Paradoxically, there was an attempt at public oversight. As we know it, called the Sunshine Project, which did some very good work. One thing the Sunshine Project was successful at showing was the resistance to oversight of an assortment of academic labs in the business of biodefense work. It no longer exists.

    Another report which was filed on the proliferation of biodefense facilities and the problems which have cropped up at them was produced by the GAO over a year ago. And the Associated Press also turned in similar work. And it was not someone anti-science who recently, probably temporarily, suspended research involving select agents at Ft. Detrick.

    As for there being an anti-science witch hunt, one is hard-pressed to find it. On the other hand, the abundance of weekly and monthly press releases on biodefense initiatives, spending, research and devices for the prevention and detection of it indicates the opposite, that research is unimpeded.

    And while biocontainment research laboratories certainly have upgrades in security, equipment and procedures designed to make them safe, the very fact of the anthrax mailer shows these can be easily bypassed — that the bad man can be working right alongside lab managers — when someone is working from within the system.

  3. As one who in the past ran a business that supplied laboratroy equipment such as biohoods, containment rooms, etc this comes as no surprise. The techniques used for the most part are safe, but not always. I have been in infectious disease laboratories that are not clearly marked and have no biohoods. That is a clear violation of existing law, and safety procedures.
    One of these locations was a government facility. When I learned what germs that they were working with I complained. I was informed “Yeah, we know, but who prosecutes the Government?”
    On other occasions I was informed that a freshman at this Ivy League University had a vial of Lasha Fever Virus. The researchers did not know how he/she came by it.
    T should read the book “Lab 257” by Michael Christopher Carroll. I have been to Plum Island and I was trained in safety by the head of Plum Island and the safety officers of Sloan Kettering, and the NIH. The horror stories that they tell would frighten you. One does not need a crackpot working at a lab bench, for mistakes do happen, and they happen more frequently than you would care to think.

  4. In any case, the proliferation of bio-weapons labs is disturbing in the extreme, especially given the advancements in gene splicing, etc. There must be some treaty agreement against this kind of activity–but, I forgot we don’t abide by treaties anymore. Another thing. If the military is involved, we are talking about genocidal products here, the indiscriminate killing of whole populations. It is healthy not to lose sight of what bio-weapons are for.

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