The federal government has responded to the threat of bioterrorism with a spending blitz that has already surpassed the annual cost of the Manhattan Project to build the first atom bomb. But as illustrated by a recent mishap in which a Frederick lab inadvertently shipped lethal anthrax across the country, the biodefense push might be creating new hazards even as it seeks to make the country safer.
The flood of new money - $14.5 billion spent since 2001 - has drawn scores of new researchers and facilities into the field, creating more possibilities for the release of anthrax and other "select agents," the legal term for pathogens with bioterrorist potential.
Known incidents have been few, but scientists say the proliferation of places and people involved in germ experiments in the United States - 11,119 workers in 317 labs approved to date - inevitably boosts the chance of accidental leaks or deliberate diversion of germs.
In addition, the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires that the location of labs handling lethal pathogens be kept secret, giving citizens no way to find out what research is being conducted in their neighborhoods.
Martin E. Hugh-Jones, a veteran anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University, says he has been "amazed" by the influx of people into his field.
Before 2001, with only a dozen U.S. research groups studying anthrax, "we all knew each other by first name," Hugh-Jones says. Today, when he reviews anthrax research proposals, "I see a lot of names I've never heard of. ... On a probabilistic basis, there's more of a risk of accidents or attacks," he says.
While advances have been made toward new ways to detect anthrax, Hugh-Jones says that overall, "I think we've spent an awful lot of money, and I'm not sure we're much better off."
Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University biochemist and critic of the expansion, said the lure of funding has drawn neophytes into the field. "With the expansion of the biodefense effort - especially to institutions and individuals without experience with lethal biological agents - accidents are more likely," he says.
"I think people will find it surprising that 11,000 people are cleared to work with the most dangerous agents, which have little importance for public health outside the bioterrorism field," Ebright says.
Passed in the aftermath of the anthrax letters that killed five people in 2001, the Bioterrorism Act imposed tough new regulations on germ research. Safety experts say that while researchers complain about paperwork, the rules have unquestionably raised awareness of the threat and added accountability to a field with lax recordkeeping.
Stefan Wagener, president of the American Biological Safety Association, says the law prompted some labs to destroy little-used stocks of germs, sometimes forgotten in freezers, that might have posed a hazard.
"I would say the impact has been positive," says Wagener, a microbiologist who oversees the Canadian government's highest-security biodefense lab, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "But has the law made the United States safer from an insider's bioterrorist attack?
"That's harder to answer."
It is also an important question, because the FBI has focused its investigation of the still-unsolved anthrax attacks largely on U.S. biodefense facilities rather than foreign terrorist groups. The letters contained a strain of anthrax used mainly in a few U.S. and foreign labs supplied by the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick.
Since registration began last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have inspected and fully certified 235 facilities nationwide and given provisional approval to 82 more to work with anthrax and other select agents. The 11,119 people who work in them have been cleared by the FBI, which checked them against criminal and terrorist databases.
Not all applicants have passed muster. The CDC has denied three labs' applications and "suspended" nine others, indicating that a provisional approval was revoked, said Ted Jones, acting director of the Select Agent Program.
The FBI's Monte D. McKee, who oversees the checks on lab workers, will say only that "less than 1 percent" of lab workers have been turned down, usually because of a criminal record. The check does not involve confirming the worker's academic or work credentials, or interviewing associates, he says.
Because there was no previous count of labs or researchers, it's impossible to measure the growth precisely. But most observers say that while red tape has driven some scientists out of the field, new research money has attracted a greater number.
The National Institutes of Health's database of research grants shows that the number of projects involving anthrax soared from 28 in 2000 to 253 last year. NIH projects mentioning "bioterrorism" and related words climbed from 25 in 2000 to 665 last year.