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New U.S. Biodefense Center Raises Concerns

Global Security Newswire

A biodefense laboratory now under construction near Washington, D.C. is to be operated under high secrecy and could raise questions about U.S. adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention, the Washington Post reported yesterday (see GSN, June 26).

Research conducted at the new National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick, Md., could lead to thousands of saved lives during an act of bioterrorism. Work conducted there is to include simulating biological attacks involving pathogens such as anthrax or engineered microbes (see related GSN story, today).

The center would be classified as a highly restricted facility. Few federal sites, including nuclear laboratories, operate at such high levels of concealment. Some arms control experts said such secrecy has become typical of U.S. Homeland Security Department biodefense efforts.

Some of this research operates in what experts describe as a legal gray zone of the treaty restricting development, production or use of biological weapons. The Bush administration says its biodefense efforts fall squarely within treaty law.

“Where the research exposes vulnerability, I’ve got to protect that, for the public’s interest,” said Bernard Courtney, NBACC scientific director. “We don’t need to be showing perpetrators the holes in our defense.”

Extreme secrecy could have a negative impact, said Tara O’Toole, founder of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“The philosophy and practice behind NBACC looks like much of the rest of the administration’s philosophy and practice: ‘Our intent is good, so we can do whatever we want,’” she said. “This approach will only lead to trouble.”

Critics understand the need for confidentiality, but are concerned that too much secrecy could increase the risk of bioterrorism. That could occur if the laboratory conducts experiments without adequate oversight, or if it promotes similar secret work by other nations.

A limited number of public documents have been released about the laboratory, which had not quelled the concerns of critics. A 2004 slide show indicated the site’s work would include producing and testing small amounts of weaponized microbes and possibly genetically engineered viruses and bacteria. It also listed “red team” exercises that replicate terrorist attacks.

The type of research to be conducted calls for an extra effort to be transparent about the government’s objectives, according to bioweapons experts.

“If we saw others doing this kind of research, we would view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty,” said Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar and weapons expert at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “You can’t go around the world yelling about Iranian and North Korean programs — about which we know very little — when we’ve got all this going on.”

The laboratory is expected to be the foremost U.S. biological research institution focused on “science-based threat assessment.” Preparing for worst-case scenarios is likely to require production of actual weapons, current and former NBACC personnel said.

“De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them,” said Penrose Albright, former assistant homeland security secretary for science and technology.
Construction began last month on the $128 million, 160,000-square-foot facility. The eight-story structure is to house two NBACC divisions: a forensic testing center that would aid in the identification of bioterrorism offenders, and a Biothreat Characterization Center which would allow researchers to predict what attacks might look like.

Homeland Security officials would not disclose the specific projects planned, but the slide show noted 16 priorities, including: “Characterize classical, emerging and genetically engineered pathogens for their (biological threat agent) potential”; “Assess the nature of nontraditional, novel and nonendemic induction of disease from potential BTA”; and “Expand aerosol-challenge testing capacity for nonhuman primates.”

The Bush administration said the facility’s research would honor the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

“All of the programs we do are defensive in nature,” said Maureen McCarthy, Homeland Security’s research and development director. “Our job is to ensure that the civilian population of the country is protected, and that we know what the threats are.”

Compliance with the treaty centers on intent and that making small amounts of biological warfare agents for research is allowed under certain interpretations.

“How can I go to the people of my country and say, ‘I can’t do this important research because some arms control advocate told me I can’t?’” Albright said.

Other experts in international law, however, said some experiments conducted within the facility could violate the treaty’s ban on developing, stockpiling, acquiring or retaining microbes “of types and in quantities that have no justification” for peaceful purposes.

“The main problem with the ‘defensive intent’ test is that it does not reflect what the treaty actually says,” said David Fidler, an Indiana University School of Law professor and expert on the bioweapons convention. The treaty does not distinguish between defensive and offensive efforts, he said (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, June 22).