APG looks at germ warfare

May 20, 1994

The restructuring and downsizing of today's armed forces has thrown U.S. military facilities into an intensely competitive bidding war for a dwindling number of remaining programs.

Aberdeen Proving Ground has held its own, losing about 200 jobs in a recent consolidation of several Army services, but gaining another 200 positions with the construction of a new $80 million materials research laboratory on post.

Now APG is in hot pursuit of another 200 jobs -- and a highly controversial Army contract to mass produce germ-warfare vaccines for U.S. troops. The Harford County installation would do well to pull back from this hazardous chase.

In order to manufacture the inocula, or protective antigens in the vaccines, the proposed $150 million laboratory will handle hundreds of gallons of infectious live microbes, and maintain an animal laboratory for live tests of the vaccines against toxins such as anthrax, botulism and plague.

The vaccine production project is an urgent priority for the Pentagon, which feared that unprotected U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf War would be exposed to biological warfare agents that the Iraqis were believed to have. Part of the U.S. expedition ++ was inoculated with experimental or rarely used vaccines, which are themselves now suspected of causing medical problems for some veterans.

Already burdened with public fears about toxic chemicals and munitions buried on the 72,000-acre post during seven decades of military testing, and with the outcry over much-delayed plans to burn 1,500 tons of obsolete chemical warfare agents on base, Aberdeen Proving Ground hardly needs to wave another red flag at the community.

While APG has earnestly applied itself to cleaning up the discarded witches' brews of yesteryear's chemical warfare testing after an embarrassing criminal trial of project managers, that is scarcely a strong recommendation for it to undertake a new career in germ-warfare research.

APG's commander, Maj. Gen. Richard W. Tragemann, was initially worried about safety factors and hostile community reaction to the sensitive new venture; those concerns are well founded. A civilian laboratory or an experienced military biological research facility such as Fort Detrick in Frederick County would be much better equipped to handle such a potentially hazardous task. The enormous problems tied to these 200 jobs would make them anything but an economic shot in the arm for APG and Harford County.

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