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Scientists Warn on Bush Bioweapons Push

Mar 28, 6:52 PM (ET)

By PAUL ELIAS
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - 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
bioterror.
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 severe bleeding.
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 security
lapses.

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 three labs.
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 smallpox.
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 Hamilton,
Mont.
"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 very large."

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.
---
On the Net:
UC Davis: http://www.ucdavis.edu
Lab opponents: http://www.simpalife.com/stopUCDBioLabNOW/contact.html

NIH Biodefense Research: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/biodefense

Fort Detrick: http://www.usamriid.army.mil




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