A Threat to our Nation’s Security
By Judy Winters
The code of conduct and research that will be performed at the proposed National Bio Agro Defense Facility has been the subject of intense opposition within several communities affected by the eventual placement of proposed lab. The consortia vying for the NBAF have dismissed the concerns of the communities, stating that accidents and security breaches are simply not something we should concern ourselves with. However, concerns regarding the production of a more virulent pathogen or potential bioweapons are valid. This degree of hubris sank the Titanic; it certainly should not be applied to life sciences and the eventual operation of a BSL 4 bio-defense facility. Concerns relating to Bio weapons proliferation have evolved from a genre of research referred to as “Dual Use” biotechnology. The “Dual use Dilemma ” has been the subject of a highly contentious, political and social debate for years.
The research activities that will take place at the NBAF are precisely the type of research that generates the most concern. It is difficult to distinguish bio-defense research from bio-weapons research. In order to make vaccines against deadly biological agents, the deadly biological agents have to be created. The US programs, particularly, the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS), are increasingly focused on “threat assessment” activities and studies where researchers deliberately create the “threat”, thus creation of the weapon, claiming they are learning to defend against it.
Dual use research is difficult to articulate and has different meaning depending on how the research is being applied. Some describe “dual use” research as that of a double- edged sword of rDNA research advancement. The research can be used for legitimate agricultural and public health advancements, but if misused, the same research technology could have disastrous consequences. Biotechnology in the hands of a rogue government, a terrorist or a simple act of greed and someone’s willingness to sell a product or an associated technology on the black-market would have the unprecedented potential for destructive and deadly widespread applications as a bio-weapon.
Should individuals living in the proximity of a BSL 4 agricultural facilities be concerned? Consider for a moment the average US citizen may never know a biological threat exist until it is too late. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 prohibits the public disclosure of any theft or loss of a potential bioterrorism agent, as well as any information related to site-specific security measures designed to prevent unauthorized access to biological agents. Although reporting of releases and thefts of bioterrorism agents from facilities and laboratories are mandatory, the Secretary of Health and Human Services may only provide public notification if the incident represents a serious public health emergency. This would include the communities surrounding the NBAF.
With the increase in the US bio-defense spending since 9/11, many have warned of the potential for disastrous consequences of misused biotechnology research.
The former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a stark warning before his retirement in 2006, a warning that the world would be foolish to ignore. Annan warned that as biological research expands and advanced biotechnologies become more available the associated safety and security risks will increase exponentially. “When used negligently, or misused deliberately, biotechnology could inflict the most profound human suffering—ranging from the accidental release of disease agents into the environment to intentional disease outbreaks caused by state or non-state actors,” Annan warned, “Soon, tens of thousands of laboratories worldwide will be operating, in a multi-billion dollar industry. Even novices working in small laboratories will be able to carry out gene manipulation.
One of the most difficult and pressing issues at hand for all involved in “life sciences”, and dual use research programs such as pharmaceutical companies, academia and government laboratories is whether the risks associated with the misuse of the technology can be minimized while still enabling critical research to continue. This is a risky juxtaposition for the scientific community entering into the bio-defense research considering they want the freedom to do the research suitable for publication and self-regulate and yet the DHS will desire to keep the research classified.
Texas A&M’s bio-defense program is a good example of how issues that just are over looked could potentially have disastrous consequences if the viruses they were working with were more lethal. The university failed to report to federal authorities’ one lab worker’s infection with Brucella and several others’ exposure to Q fever. The failure to report the employees contamination was brought to the attention of Federal authorities by a bioweapons proliferation watchdog group know as the Sunshine Project . Otherwise, this incident would have never been reported.
The “designer bugs” produced in these types of BSL 4 facilities are more virulent than their naïve counterparts. Moreover, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIH) , 18 of the BSL 4 select agents are capable of rapid widespread human de-population, with no known cure or vaccine. Citizens should question an agency with so many documented failures to regulate itself, while safely operating a BSL 4 Bio containment facility.