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Bioweapons labs built all over us

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Bioweapon labs will bring threat of lethal viruses to urban America
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
29 June 2003

A network of high-security laboratories for storing and investigating some of the most lethal viruses known to mankind is being built across the US, leaving communities in uproar. They not only fear the risk of the viruses escaping, but also contend that the programme, part of the $6bn (3.5bn) Project BioShield, is a stunning case of overkill. For none of the germs to be studied is related to bioweaponry.

In the tiny town of Hamilton, Montana, campaigners worry that they will become a terrorist target if the proposed laboratory goes ahead. In New York State, congressmen have already blocked a proposal to house a laboratory on Plum Island, off Long Island. In Davis, California, home to a major branch of the state university system, activists have sued the university for failing to abide by state environmental regulations in making its application to house nasties ranging from Ebola to hanta virus and tick-borne encephalitis.

This is not just a matter of nimbyism. The protesters cannot understand why they should risk exposure to the tiny clutch of diseases requiring the construction of maximum-security "level 4" biosafety facilities - there are just five of them - when none has any known practical utility as a guerrilla weapon. The diseases the national security people are most worried about - anthrax, smallpox and plague - are either level 2 or level 3, and plenty of laboratories at those levels exist already.

"There is no benefit to our community. Not a single one," said Samantha McCarthy, who is leading efforts against the Davis biolab.

In Davis, in particular, there are serious security concerns. This is a university that managed to spread major contamination in a 1950s experiment to irradiate beavers. The clean-up is still going on. In February, a rhesus monkey used in disease experiments mysteriously disappeared from campus and has never been found. Now, the university is proposing to contract out security for the new biolab to Los Alamos, the nuclear laboratory in New Mexico embroiled in numerous security lapses - most recently when it lost what it called a "small" amount of low-grade plutonium.

According to Ms McCarthy, the biolab plan would entail the transport of highly dangerous materials in and out of town in ordinary lorries - a system that recently brought a Hazmat team out on to a road in Ohio after an explosion involving a lower-grade biological agent.

Most experts agree that the level 4 facilities would probably be pretty safe, since they are made of numerous isolation chambers that researchers would enter in moon-style protective gear. Whether they are suitable for urban areas such as Davis is a matter of debate, however. One biolab designer, Jim Orzechowski of the Canadian firm of Smith Carter Architects and Engineers, told the Los Angeles Times less than reassuringly last week: "We're getting as close to fail safe as possible. As fail safe as the space shuttle." The space shuttle has had two catastrophic failures in 17 years.

The broader question, however, is why these laboratories are being built at all. According to Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University, it is a matter of crazy bureaucratic logic. Congress flooded the National Institutes of Health with so much money that the NIH simply could not work out how to spend it all on biodefence. Even if the NIH accepted every single research proposal without vetting - something it would never do - and built as many level 2 and level 3 labs as it possibly could, it still would not get through the $6bn. Only super-expensive level 4 labs can do the trick - even though they are of negligible scientific or medical value and do not cover bioweapon agents.

"Not only is this a monumental waste of money," Professor Ebright said, "but the new labs raise their own security issues. And it can't be a good idea to increase the number of people trained in handling these agents given the damage that a rogue scientist could do."
1 July 2003 07:59

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2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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