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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  January 2005

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE January 2005

Subject:

Article: The Next Worst Thing biodefense research

From:

Wren Osborn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 3 Jan 2005 06:51:36 -0800

Content-Type:

multipart/alternative

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (140 lines) , text/enriched (176 lines)

http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2004/03/02_400.html  1/3/05

The Next Worst Thing

Is the federal government's expansion of biodefense research paving the 
way for the bioweapons of the future?
By Michael Scherer
March/April 2004 Issue

It has been called a modern-day Manhattan Project—a spending spree so 
vast and rapid that it might change the face of biological science. In 
the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government is funding a massive new 
biodefense research effort, redirecting up to $10 billion toward 
projects related to biological weapons such as anthrax. The Pentagon's 
budget for chemical and biological defense has doubled; high-security 
nuclear-weapons labs have begun conducting genetic research on 
dangerous pathogens; universities are receiving government funding to 
build high-tech labs equipped to handle deadly infectious organisms; 
and Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the home of America's secret 
bioweapons program, is about to break ground on two new high-tech 
biodefense centers.

Officials say the effort is designed to head off what a recent CIA 
report calls the "darker bioweapons future." Intelligence briefings are 
awash with speculation about other nations or terrorists developing 
genetically engineered pathogens "worse than any disease known to man." 
But a growing number of microbiologists, nonproliferation experts, and 
former government officials say there may be a dark side to the 
biodefense push: With poor oversight, government-funded scientists 
could actually be paving the way for the next generation of killer 
germs—and given the explosion of research, there is no way to keep 
track of what is being done. "We are playing games with fire," says Ken 
Alibek, a top scientist in the Soviet Union's bioweapons program until 
defecting to the United States. "It is kind of a Pandora's box. As soon 
as you open it, there is no way of putting it back in."

In a little-noticed report released in October, the National Academy of 
Sciences warned that the government has no mechanism to prevent the 
"misuse of the tools, technology, or knowledge base of this research 
enterprise for offensive military or terrorist purposes." The report 
called for dramatically stepped-up monitoring of federally supported 
biodefense projects; so far, Congress and the administration have 
failed to act on those recommendations. Federal anti-terror legislation 
has focused on limiting access to stockpiles of known bioterrorism 
agents such as anthrax. But in a world where scientists can create 
deadly diseases in a test tube, says Dr. Ernie Takafuji, acting 
assistant director of biodefense at the National Institute of Allergies 
and Infectious Diseases, that is not enough. "When you come down to it, 
the threat is not just the organisms," he explains. "The threat is the 
technologies." The greatest danger, scientists and intelligence 
officials agree, stems from researchers' increasing ability to alter 
the genetic codes of viruses and bacteria: The same information can be 
used either to treat disease or to make new germs— pathogens that 
could, for example, be designed to evade treatment or to genetically 
target specific populations.

Late last year, for example, Takafuji and other public-health officials 
were caught by surprise when an American virologist, Mark Buller, 
revealed that he was working on ways of creating a more deadly form of 
mousepox, a relative of smallpox, and was considering similar work on 
cowpox, which can infect humans. No one suggested that Buller, who has 
been working at St. Louis University to defeat known techniques for 
making pox viruses more lethal, sought to create a bioweapon. But the 
prospect of manufacturing a more deadly germ just to see how it could 
be killed worried many. "That is work that creates a new vulnerability 
for the United States and the world," says Richard H. Ebright, lab 
director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers 
University. "It's like the National Institutes of Health was funding a 
research and development arm of Al Qaeda." Buller himself, while 
defending the benefits of his own work, acknowledges the concerns over 
the new rush to biodefense research. "When you have thrown a lot of 
money at it," he said, "people start to think very hard about what is 
possible, losing sight of what is practical."

In another project that has raised eyebrows among bioweapons experts, a 
U.S. Army medical scientist in Maryland has been seeking to bring back 
to life key parts of the 1918 Spanish flu, a lethal influenza virus 
that killed 40 million people worldwide. While such research could be 
immensely valuable in fighting another deadly flu outbreak, it might 
also be used to create such an outbreak, notes Ed Hammond, director of 
the Sunshine Project, a group critical of American biodefense spending. 
"If [the researcher] worked in a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian 
laboratory," he says, "his work might well be seen as the 'smoking gun' 
of a bio-warfare program."

Even more worrisome to many experts is the apparent growth in 
secretive, or "black box," biodefense research by the U.S. intelligence 
community. "There's all kinds of secret research going on right now," 
says Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist who has worked closely with 
the military. "The more you create secret research in biology," he 
warns, "the more you create risk." One program that has become public 
is Project Jefferson, a Pentagon effort to genetically engineer a 
vaccine-resistant version of anthrax. After the program's existence was 
revealed by the New York Times in 2001, the Pentagon announced that it 
intended to complete the project and that the results would be 
classified. "[The military's] natural instinct is to exploit the 
technology and keep everybody else away from it," says John D. 
Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security 
Studies at the University of Maryland. "In their hands, this technology 
is potentially extremely dangerous."

Programs like Project Jefferson have already raised concerns that U.S. 
scientists are treading dangerously close to the limits of the 1972 
Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits offensive research. Just 
months before September 11, the Bush administration walked away from 
negotiations to impose biological-weapons inspections, in part because 
American pharmaceutical companies did not want to open their labs to 
international inspectors. The abandonment of the talks left the world 
without any way to enforce the treaty's restrictions. Now, experts fear 
that the explosion of American research—including programs such as 
Project Jefferson that are widely viewed as potential violations of the 
treaty—might encourage other countries to disregard the convention.

Despite these fears, the administration is pushing to expand research 
programs even further. In a rare unclassified report on the Pentagon's 
biodefense plans, James B. Petro, a top official in the Defense 
Intelligence Agency, recently called for a new federal "threat 
assessment" facility for advanced bioweapons. Such a facility, he 
wrote, would investigate topics with "limited implications for the 
general bioscience community, but significant application for nefarious 
scientists."

To many observers, the statement indicated that the United States is 
moving toward a pre-emptive approach, attempting to beat terrorists to 
the punch by being the first to produce novel pathogens. "What they 
seem to be saying to me is that we are actually in a 
defensive/offensive arms race," says Malcolm Dando, a British 
bioweapons expert at Bradford University. "If the U.S. goes down these 
roads, it indicates routes that people can follow."  What do you think?

© 2004 The Foundation for National Progress


	





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