With biodefense plan, fear of repercussions

Critics say Md. lab's work would pose public threat

April 29, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As President Bush issued a sweeping order to boost the nation's defenses against bioterrorism, arms control advocates contended yesterday that research planned for a new Department of Homeland Security laboratory at Fort Detrick would violate the international ban on biological weapons and could touch off a global biological arms race.

The research plan for the $200 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) includes laboratory studies of genetically engineered germs and methods to disseminate them as an aerosol spray, according to a February presentation by Lt. Col. George Korch, the center's deputy director. Such work has not previously been conducted at the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, partly to avoid any hint of treaty violations.

"If any other country presented this list of tasks, the U.S. intelligence community would say it's an offensive program," said Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland scholar who has studied biowarfare for more than 30 years. Such programs are prohibited by the international Biological Weapons Convention, which the United States ratified in 1975.

Leitenberg and other critics say there is always a chance that newly engineered pathogens could escape from the lab, noting that China is trying to contain a SARS outbreak set off by an infected lab worker. They also say there would be no way to ensure that a disgruntled worker might not use high-tech germs or techniques developed at the lab to launch an attack.

NBACC was created last year and is operating out of temporary offices at Fort Detrick. Construction of its $200 million lab is scheduled to begin later this year at the Frederick Army post.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich said yesterday that everything proposed by NBACC is strictly defensive in purpose, not offensive. The center will study bioforensics, the emerging science of tracing a germ weapon back to its source, and will build a large database of information on all possible biological weapons threats, she said.

But to be able to counter all future biological threats, Petrovich said, the center must explore how bioterrorists might use genetic engineering to make viruses or bacteria more deadly or contagious. Only then can scientists develop new vaccines, drugs or other measures to avert a potential biological catastrophe.

"The mission is actually to identify threats so we can defend against them and protect the American people," she said.

Not persuaded

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York who heads a bioweapons study group for the Federation of American Scientists, said she did not find such assurances persuasive.

"It sounds like they're poised for multiple challenges to the Biological Weapons Convention that could provoke a biological arms race, and for activities that could endanger public health," Rosenberg said, after reviewing Korch's 34-slide presentation.

But Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, of the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said such judgments are premature.

"I think it's an overstatement to say, based on this presentation, that NBACC will violate treaties," Inglesby said. He said he believes the work can be carried out safely and legally as long as there is adequate legal and scientific oversight.

The research proposed by the Homeland Security Department is just one piece of a huge federal biodefense program costing about $6 billion this year, or more than 17 times what the government was spending before 9/11 and the anthrax-letter attacks of 2001 alerted the country to the menace posed by bioterror.

At a news conference yesterday, top Bush administration officials unveiled Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10, which states the president's view that biological weapons "could cause catastrophic harm" and instructs government agencies to improve defenses.

"From the creation of a biological attack warning system, to an improved distribution system of critical antibiotics and vaccines, this plan charts the course toward our goal of a strong and robust bioterrorism defense," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who spoke along with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

The breathtaking increase in biodefense spending has been applauded by public health specialists to the extent that it strengthens protections against natural disease threats. Most health experts say that existing diseases such as AIDS and SARS, along with the potentially devastating threat posed if avian flu mutates and spreads among humans, pose a far graver danger than a man-made biological attack.

Break with past

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.