"Bio-terror defense" is coming to Portland in the shape of a lab so secure that OHSU can't tell us exactly what's going to go on in it. But we do know a few things: |
- The level of containment associated with this lab (BSL-4) is necessary for only a handful of rare naturally occurring pathogens, and not required for most of the research procedures done with these viruses.
- The only thing in the NIH guidelines distinguishing a BSL-4 from lower containment facilities is the use of the word "aerosol" (a term associated with microbes tooled to be weapons, i.e. anthrax).
- Most research for medical purposes (i.e. vaccine formulation, bio-informatics etc.) does not require the use of the disease in aerosol form.
- An exception to this is animal testing which is both morally and scientifically suspect. -At least six (that we know of) laboratories nationwide currently exist with the same level of containment and plans to upgrade and expand these facilities are underway.
- That, in spite of this, the NIH intends to build as many as 12 more, placing them across the country in academic and metropolitan centers.
- The only known escape of a pathogen from a BSL-4 lab was the result of a security failure. (the anthrax used in the postal attacks was traced to Fort Dietrich, a Dept. of Defense lab in Maryland).
- That tripling the number of these labs will greatly increase the number of people with access to these agents.
- That placing these labs all across the country and in metropolitan areas will greatly increase distances and # of handlers when bio-agents ship.
- The United States signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1968.
- The United States recently rejected the Treaty's monitoring and enforcement protocol thus neutering the convention and threatening a biological arms race.
- Andrew Card Jr., the Bush Administration Chief Of Staff sent a memo on March 19, 2002 to his cabinet:- "You and your agencies have an obligation to safeguard gov't records regarding chem, bio, radiological and nuclear weapons."
- "The Bio-terrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002" 42 usc & 262a(h) prohibits (under threat of criminal penalty) federal officials from disclosing what biological agents or toxins are used in a BSL-4 lab.
- That The Secretary of Health and Human Services has sole discretion to notify the public in the event of the release of a biological agent.
- And that for 200 million dollars of Federal money, Portlanders are willing to keep quiet about it.
You fill in the pieces.
If we're talking about a response to a biological pathogen, doctors and scientists in the vicinity of such an outbreak or attack would want to communicate with a central lab. But this lab does not have to be in the nearest metropolitan area.
Vital work, like primary care, quarantining and containment of the disease would have to happen regardless of the proximity of a lab, in effect, creating a giant containment area in a hospital or facility housing the sick. For the medical workers in this environment, bio-safety would only be as good as their protective gear and hygiene. As for the medical lab work one might undertake on the scene to send a sample to a lab, this would involve pathogens in serum, not airborne or "aerosolized." And this work would also have to happen regardless of where the BSL-4 lab was.
In the event of such an outbreak, what would be the real difference in having this lab more locally, say 300 instead of 1300 miles away? I say negligible compared to the security risks involved in having more and more places that keep these deadly agents.
It's because these diseases are no longer local that we're having to deal with them at all.
If more work and funding need to be done on these few, rare viruses, why not concentrate that work in one place, thus reducing the risk of a security failure?
The one instance in which a local BSL-4 lab would be useful is if the disease escaped from that same lab in the first place! In that event researchers will have already isolated the pathogen and, if we're lucky, have made some headway with a vaccine! But this is insanity. Isn't it?
Other reasons for these labs: Politics and Pork
Perhaps our leaders are more concerned with the appearance of doing something than actually doing something. This pay-out to the National Institutes of Health, $1.3 billion of which they are expected to spend in the first year is unprecedented in medical research history. Even diseases that have actually killed some Americans like HIV and cancer have not attracted such a dramatic increase in funding. Possibly, the NAIAD did not have the mechanism to deal with so much money, and instead of giving it back, decided to build a half dozen of the most expensive things they could think of.
The U.S. Government has a long and fruitful history of tapping into academic expertise. The atomic bomb was a joint effort of academicians and the military. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long had strong ties to Universities. It is through DARPA that technologies were developed that led to the M-16 rifle, the F-117 fighter, the B-2 stealth bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative (to name but a few). Here is a quote from their web page:
"DARPA has a strategic thrust in the life sciences called "Bio-Revolution." This thrust is a comprehensive effort to harness the insights and power of biology to make U.S. warfighters and their equipment stronger, safer, and more effective. It stems from several developments:First, over the last decade and beyond, the U.S. has made an enormous investment in the life sciences - so much so that it has now become commonplace to say that we are entering a "golden age" of biology...DARPA is mining these new discoveries for concepts and applications that could enhance U.S. national security in revolutionary ways.
Second, there has been a growing recognition of synergies among biology, information technology, and micro/nano technology. Advances in any one area often benefit the other two, and DARPA has been active in information technology and microelectronics for many years.
Third, DARPA's programs to thwart the threat of biological attack have brought significant biological expertise into the Agency. This created an impetus and a capability to begin a major exploration of the national security potential of cutting-edge research in the life sciences." http://www.darpa.mil/body/off_programs.html
I include this as an illustration of both the military's keen interest in this research frontier, and the synergistic nature of this work. One cannot "bound" the research from exploring potential military applications. And this "cutting edge research" is occurring in American universities. And with government funded labs at their disposal, researchers may in fact better understand these exotic viruses. But claims that these labs will somehow improve our national security or "terrorism" preparedness are specious. And given the incidence of these viruses in this country, they can hardly be called a public health priority. Not when behaviorally and genetically induced diseases like obesity, heart disease, cancer and HIV reap millions of lives each year.
The proliferation of these labs seems typical of our obsession with technology and the belief that science can somehow solve all problems. In fact, for the application of preventing every crime that might be conceived or acted upon, the tools of science are both incredibly expensive and incredibly ineffective. Life has risks and we seem to have lost the common sense necessary to balance these risks with intelligent investments for the social good. This particular investment may actually increase the risk of an outbreak by producing deadly microbes and creating more opportunity for their misuse.
A Circumstantial Case
Sadly, because an aura of "bio-terror defense" and thus secrecy surround this issue, the case against these labs is largely circumstantial. But the coincidence of the U.S. rejecting biological weapons treaty protocols and building a series of secretive labs at the same time is a serious cause for concern. If our goal here is reduce the risk of bio-weapons release in the U.S., why would we want to undermine a treaty that keeps most of the world out of this game? When transparency is our best hope at limiting the fear that fuels bio-weapons research, why would we enact a series of legislation and executive orders that mandate secrecy regarding these weapons? It seems that there are only a few answers to this question: We are either very arrogant, very stupid, or we intend to develop biological weapons. None of these answers will increase our national security.