Scientists Warn on Bush Bioweapons Push
Scientists, Arms Experts Warn on Bush Administration Push for
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO March 28 -
A Bush administration program to add at least three bioweapons labs
is troubling many scientists and arms control experts, who say it
can't be good to train more microbiologists in the black art of
The field is suddenly awash with billions of dollars to combat
bioterrorism and much more is promised under President Bush's Project
BioShield plan. The money will fund a building boom of at least three
new airtight laboratories where scientists in space suits handle the
world's deadliest diseases.
At least six universities and the New York State Department of Health
are competing for contracts to build one or two labs, where
scientists can infect research monkeys and other animals with such
lethal agents as the Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses. Those African
hemorrhagic diseases are often fatal and always painful, marked by
They'll also likely create new classes of toxins including
genetically engineered ones as part of the process of constructing
weapons they want to defeat. Developing antidotes or vaccines for
those toxins might take years.
"It's perversely increasing the risk of exposure," said Richard
Ebright, a Rutgers University chemistry professor and bioweapons
expert who believes one additional lab is all that is needed.
Ebright and others believe labs managed by universities could prove
less secure than government facilities, which have had their own
Many believe the anthrax attacks that killed five people and briefly
paralyzed Capitol Hill in 2001 were launched by a scientist with
access to one of the government's high-security facilities called
Biosafety Level 4 labs, or BSL-4 for short.
Federal investigators searched a former apartment of one such
microbiologist, Steven Hatfill, but never stated publicly that he was
a suspect. Hatfill has denied involvement.
In his state of the union speech in January, President Bush called
for nearly $6 billion to make vaccines and treatments against
potential bioterror pathogens. The National Institutes of Health
bioterrorism budget, meanwhile, has increased 500 percent this year
to $1.3 billion a large part of which will be used to build at least
Government officials and leaders of universities vying for the
bioterrorism largesse are unapologetic.
NIH officials say that only two of the five U.S. facilities equipped
do such work are effectively in use today, and they're overburdened.
One is at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in
Atlanta the only place in the United States that handles live
The other full-scale lab is the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute
of Infectious Diseases at Maryland's Fort Detrick. The government is
already going ahead with additional labs at Fort Detrick and in
"What we have is not adequate to meet the current biodefense
efforts," said Rona Hirschberg of the National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Disease.
Officials said they don't know how many scientists work in the
biosafety labs, but that the number is tiny and many more trained
researchers are needed.
One of the byproducts of such endeavors will be the study of emerging
diseases like the West Nile virus, which has infected 4,000 people
and killed 274.
"The emerging diseases that we have to deal with are intense," said
Virginia Hinshaw, provost of the University of California-Davis,
which hopes to build one of the new labs. "The public health need is
But mistrust runs deep, especially in the California college town of
Davis. Lobbied intensely by vocal residents, the city council voted
to oppose the school's application to build a lab.
The Davis protests reached a crescendo in February with the escape of
a lab monkey, which is still missing. Davis officials said it was
disease-free and probably now dead. Still, the school's $200 million
bid for a BSL-4 lab has been jeopardized.
Government officials insist that the labs will be secure and serve
only defensive purposes. But the U.S. military has a history of
dabbling in biological agent programs that push up against a 30-year-
old international treaty banning them.
Most recently, it was revealed that researchers at the Dugway Proving
Ground in Utah have been developing anthrax for use in testing
biological defense systems.