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Bush's plans for 'deadly labs' run into trouble

Indo-Asian News Service Washington, July 7 -- A $2.5 billion plan to build laboratories across the US to study biological weapons has evoked fears of diseases and terror attacks and many fear it will turn neighbourhoods into security zones, says UPI. In a two-month investigation, UPI found roughly 20 existing high-level bio-defence labs and proposals or plans to double that number through new construction and upgrades.
 http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_300389,0005.htm

These new facilities--many of them to be located in densely populated cities, on college campuses and residential neighbourhoods--would study some of the world's most dangerous pathogens.

"We have a need for a tremendous amount of capacity," said Maureen McCarthy, acting director for the Office of Research and Development for the Science and Technology Directorate within the Department of Homeland Security.

She said the recently adopted model for testing vaccines requires results in two types of animals. As a result of this, and the greater push to find countermeasures for bio-weapons, the nation needs more and larger laboratories.

Citizens and political action groups charge, however, that secrecy shrouds many of the projects and it has been difficult to find out what pathogens will be studied and whether the danger to humans and the environment around the laboratories has been fully considered.

In Davis, California, the city council refused to approve the bio-defence lab plans of the University of California, saying bringing such a lab to the town was too divisive.

Citizen groups said the lab would bring deadly pathogens to Davis and they questioned safety measures. They asserted the facility would make the town a target for terrorists.

Just as university officials were trying to reassure the townspeople no deadly microbes would be let loose, a monkey escaped from the primate centre that would supply test animals for the lab's experiments.

The monkey has never been found and the incident heightened fear lab safety measures could be breached.

Far away, the Boston University Medical Centre is seeking federal grants to build a major bio-defence laboratory in Boston's densely populated and racially charged South End.

Opposition groups contend people in the neighbourhood have not been given a full picture of the lab's dangers.

On Long Island, New York, public citizens groups sharply oppose plans for defence research into biological weapons on Plum Island, a government facility about two km offshore of their communities and near Boston and New York.

The Department of Energy is planning to build a biological defence lab at its Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons facility despite the fact it would be located near San Francisco--in a known earthquake area--with seven million people living within a 80-km radius.

In the weeks after the terror attacks and anthrax deaths in New York, Washington and Florida in 2001, there were few limits on what the Bush administration and Congress were willing to do to fight terrorism.

They reached for the ultimate weapon of the US--money--proposing $10.6 billion for bio-terrorism defence research, vaccines and treatments.

To date, the federal government has not published a list of bio-defence labs either existing or proposed.

The Sunshine Project, a private arms control research centre located in Austin, Texas and Hamburg Germany, said there were plans to build or upgrade some 35 high-security bio-defence laboratories around the country.

UPI identified some 20 existing bio-defence labs and found proposals or plans to build or upgrade roughly another 20.

Although some planned labs are on military bases and in remote areas, many are being considered at universities and hospitals located near or in the centre of dense urban areas.

The key role of these research laboratories is to produce small quantities of deadly biological pathogens, and use the agent to try to find vaccines or antidotes to their effects.

In the course of this research, tens of thousands of animals, including non-human primates, will be given the diseases to study their effects. No animal will survive these tests.

The care, security and safe disposal of the animals and their remains are major safety problems.

The work in these laboratories is exceedingly dangerous to the scientists and potentially deadly to vast numbers of the population if the microbes were to get to the outside.

Since most of the most lethal potential agents can be distributed through the air, the main approach to safety is preventing the germs and viruses from leaking out of the secure containers and rooms where scientists work with them.
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