Report assails security at animal disease center

Pathogens could be used in germ warfare, it says

October 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Officials at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center have failed to safeguard pathogens that could be adapted to become weapons of germ warfare, including an agent potentially as "threatening as smallpox," a federal report says.

Safety concerns at the island, off the North Fork of Long Island, have long focused on the pathogens of diseases generally confined to animals, such as foot-and-mouth disease and swine fever. But the report, excerpts of which were provided by a government official concerned about safety at the island, sounded a rare alarm about the potential of hazards to people.

The General Accounting Office, which issued the report, noted a host of failings: door sensors and alarms that did not work, weak outside lighting, and the presence of armed guards but no permission for them to use their weapons.

Some of the report's conclusions were first reported in Newsday yesterday.

More worrisome, the report said, was the way in which dangerous pathogens in its biocontainment center were protected. Foreign students who take courses at the center do not undergo background checks, some government scientists employed there had not had background checks updated in more than a decade, and recently eight foreign scientists were given free rein in the biocontainment area without adequate checks, the report said.

"Plum Island officials have not adequately controlled access to the pathogens," it said. Access is the one way to enforce security because no one can detect the theft of a "microgram" of a pathogen, which can rapidly multiply, it said.

"Thus, a scientist could covertly generate or divert a pathogen during the normal course of work, remove it from the laboratory undetected and potentially develop it into a weapon for spreading disease," the report said.

It said two pathogens were of particular concern: Venezuelan equine encephalitis, or VEE, and camel pox. U.S. government research, the report said, has shown that VEE "can be developed into a human warfare agent."

Further, the Department of Agriculture believes that because of the genetic similarities of pox strains, "It may be possible to manipulate camel pox into an agent as threatening as smallpox," the report said. In a brief footnote, it said the Agriculture Department had done research for the Defense Department because of concern that Iraqi scientists were trying to turn camel pox into a weapon.

As early as May 1996, a CIA report said that camel pox "could possibly serve as a research model for smallpox."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which took over administration of the island from the Agriculture Department in June, said that although Homeland officials had seen a draft of the report, she wanted to wait to read the final version before commenting in detail.

"We are continually assessing, reviewing, and enhancing security measures at the Plum Island facility," said the spokeswoman, Michelle Petrovich. The report said that some improvements had been made in security recently, and that the Homeland Security department was aware of the deficiencies and was working on them.

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