Under a microscope

August 01, 2006

The big, new and very secret biodefense lab now being built at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, will be developing even-deadlier strains of some of the world's most dangerous microbes, so as to find ways to ward them off. It's a very unsettling idea, made more so by this: The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, as it's known, seems to have been founded on the notion, so common in the Bush administration and especially in the Department of Homeland Security, that there's no need to worry because nothing will go amiss.

Yet on Sunday we learned from The Sun's Douglas Birch that a KGB spy may have been spiriting secrets out of Fort Detrick in the 1980s. And a disgruntled employee could have been the source of the anthrax that went in the mail in the fall of 2001 and killed five people. This new lab will surely have stringent controls, but no counter-espionage system is foolproof. Now the experimental germs are going to be even more deadly. Is the risk of release greater than the benefit that might accrue from such research?

This is not a slam-dunk. Plenty of experts believe that a bioterror attack is inevitable, though none has been successfully tried, and cheap and effective explosives remain the weapon of choice for the world's extremists. The use of deadly germs by terrorists would be unlikely to lead to widespread death - because that's a very difficult undertaking - but the psychological impact would be enormous, and that might be the terrorists' real goal anyway. A simple bioweapon does not require tremendously sophisticated equipment or expertise. But does it make sense, in that case, to devote finite research dollars to the most outlandish threats, rather than focusing on the most likely ones?

Ever since The Sun and other news organizations began reporting on the lab in 2004, it has been clear that its work would skirt very close to the boundaries of the treaty banning development of biological weapons. Will the lab cross the line? That will be hard to say, because the administration plans to operate it in deepest secrecy, with little outside review. Politically, this will make it all the harder for the United States to call other nations to account over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and that's no small matter. Scientifically, it will increase the chance of some program or individual getting way out of line. Realistically, it's hard to figure out how the nation could effectively respond to a bioattack if only a very few people are allowed to know about the lab's work.

Biodefense is a legitimate concern. But the risks at Fort Detrick are going to be real, too. Some genuine transparency in its operation would be an excellent hedge against things going terribly wrong.

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