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Construction to Begin Today on U.S. Biodefense Site

Global Security Newswire

The U.S. Homeland Security Department is today scheduled to break ground for its controversial National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick, Md., the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Aug. 24, 2005).

The $128 million, 160,000-square-foot laboratory is to be the first agency site working solely on biodefense upon opening in 2008. It is expected to study biological threat vulnerabilities and consequences, and to conduct forensic analysis of evidence, according to AP.

The center will incorporate the National Bioforensic Analysis Center and the Biological Threat Characterization Center, which are already operating at other locations. The Agricultural Biodefense Center at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York and the Biodefense Knowledge Center at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are considered part of the center, but would not be incorporated into the new facility.

Critics have expressed concern that the center's work could be considered biological weapons research.

There is little difference beyond intent between offensive and defensive research, said Michael Stebbins, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Biosecurity Project.

Jason Kray, a member of a local activist group, also criticized the facility.

"I do not trust the Army to operate (NBACC) in a safe, ethical or legal manner," he said (Associated Press/WTOP Radio, June 26).

NBACC scientific director Bernard Courtney said biologists at the center would create pathogens to match strains that terrorists are producing and then prepare countermeasures, the Baltimore Sun reported today.

He added, however, that the center is prepared to engineer a modified disease organism only once there is credible evidence that terrorists are pursuing it.

Some arms control experts have expressed concern that such efforts could lead to development of new vaccine-resistant pathogens.

Scientists could end up "in essence creating new threats that we're going to have to defend ourselves against," said Alan Pearson, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation (Douglas Birch, Baltimore Sun, June 26).