Biodefense lab in U.S. is questioned

May 21, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Three veteran biological arms control experts have published a statement questioning research plans for a Department of Homeland Security biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, saying it may undermine the international ban on biological weapons.

The commentary, posted this week on the Web site of the journal Politics and the Life Sciences, expresses concern that the government's aggressive biodefense efforts could backfire by prompting other nations to step up research on bioweapons. At the heart of the problem is the fact that there is often little difference between defensive and offensive bioweapons research.

The commentary was written by James F. Leonard, who led the U.S. delegation that negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972; Richard O. Spertzel, a former official of the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick and chief United Nations bioweapons inspector in Iraq; and Milton Leitenberg, an expert on arms control at the University of Maryland.

Their critique was sparked by plans for Homeland Security's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) as described in a presentation by Lt. Col. George W. Korch Jr., deputy head of the center, that was posted on the Web. Established last year, the center is operating out of temporary offices at Fort Detrick until its $200 million high-security laboratory can be built.

The plans Korch outlined for the NBACC include genetically engineering viruses and bacteria to make them deadlier to devise vaccines and drugs to defeat them. The center will also test ways of making pathogens into an aerosol that can be inhaled, the most likely form of bioterror attack.

The critics note that the Biological Weapons Convention outlaws not only the production and stockpiling of bioweapons, but their "development" as well. They say the plans outlined by Korch may constitute such prohibited weapons development and "certainly will be interpreted that way" by other nations.

"The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness, and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention, are startling," the critics say.

A spokesman for Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. In the past the department has said that the NBACC will be devoted exclusively to defensive research but that a robust defense requires a detailed understanding of all possible threats.

Leonard, 84, a retired diplomat, said he fears that other countries will see U.S. research as a challenge. "In French labs, German labs, Russian labs, Egyptian labs, scientists will say, `Look at what the United States is doing; we have to at least keep up,'" he said.

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