Tuesday, March 10, 2009

AN AWKWARD POSITION

"15,300 government workers have access to agents of bioterror" is a line that couldn't have been published in the mainstream media a year or two ago. That it is one today in a blog entry at the great middle of US newspapering, USA Today, is evidence of the embarrassing position this country finds itself in.

Succinctly: After screaming about biological attacks by outside terrorists for years, the most effective act of bioterrorism during the so-called "war on terror" originated in the US biodefense research infrastructure. Taxpayer dollars produced the finest bioterrorist money could buy, not al Qaeda.

The only other conspicuous misuse of dangerous materials with application in bioterrorism also came about despite the US government's select agent control regime, a program specifically put in place to oversee and regulate the production and proliferation of dangerous materials. It is described here and involved the production of botulism toxin, or botox, by a US-lab (named List in Campbell, CA) directly involved in furnishing dangerous substances and complexes for research use in the biodefense research milieu. This toxin was ordered by two criminals and diverted for use in the cosmetic surgery industry. The diversion was only discovered when a number of people were paralyzed by the toxin so severely they had to be placed on life support.

In any case, the USA Today line comes from just published government reports on the explosive expansion of bioterror research facilities in this country, which isn't exactly a big secret.

Two years ago, few critical words could be heard about risks involved in this build-up, namely the increased potential for mischief by disturbed or malicious individuals within such programs. This risk became impossible to ignore with the exposure of Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the heart of the country's lead biodefense research lab, Fort Detrick, as the presumed anthrax mailer.

"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," a quote from Steven Aftergood's Secrecy blog here also puts a fine point to it.

"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," states a new Congressional Research Report entitled "Oversight of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Issues for Congress."

"However, they also could increase the risk of a biological attack by serving as a potential source of materials for training," it continues.

Permeation of the second statement into a vehicle for policy discussion like the Congressional Research Service simply wasn't possible a few years ago. Any reasoning which called for a more deliberate pace of build-up within the biodefense industry in academia and the private sector was, for practical purposes, disallowed. (For an example, see here.)

To be sure, finding a way to oversee and regulate this expanded network of laboratories will present many technical and political challenges, not least of which is the general and often legitimate scientific antipathy to any outside meddling with research. On the other hand, one possibility that "[experts] suggest ... training in best practices be increased and that scientists develop more robust self-policing," as something proffered by a trio of scientists from the biodefense industry, seems a little too lacking in substance.

It must also be noted that the increased number of people working in biodefense has not led to any specific "better understanding of the threat of bioterrorism." In fact, just the opposite has been the case, at least in the public domain, where until recently the only viewpoint allowed was that bioterrorism was easy, catastrophic and inevitable. And the same biodefense infrastructure completely struck out when analyzing al Qaeda's potential for mounting a biological attack.



Related:

Censored scenes from a Congressional WMD report

It's not too late to join the bioterror gold rush

The amazing endless bioterror pork conveyor.

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