Briefing Book

Biohazard

Why U.S. bioterror research is more dangerous than bioterrorism.

In the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government set out with unprecedented haste and vehemence to root out terrorists or state agents plotting similar assaults anywhere in the world and to prepare the United States for the aftermath should any succeed. But despite the unprecedented devastation, aerial hijackings had occurred before and the kinds of measures needed to prevent their recurrence were generally understood. Although there were well-founded fears of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, this was also nothing new. The United States had already lived with the threat of nuclear attack for more than half a century.

But the lethal anthrax-letter mailings that quickly followed 9/11 represented something new and potentially even more terrifying. The letters containing laboratory-grown anthrax spores mailed to U.S. Senate and media offices killed five people and left many more permanently injured. This was a small number compared with the World Trade Center casualties, but the so-called Amerithrax attacks foretold what true biowarfare might bring, a new threat with the awful prospect of mass deaths and unstoppable pandemics on a scale never before known and against which we would be defenseless.

The Bush administration's response was to hastily cobble together a massive, largely secret, biodefense program that has so far cost $50 billion to $60 billion. The number of high-biosecurity laboratories working on pathogens has multiplied to more than 1,000.

These labs dot the map in locations ranging from university campuses to hospitals to research institutes, from densely packed urban centers to quiet residential neighborhoods. The research juggernaut has received little public scrutiny and, as with other security programs launched in those tense days, it's worth asking if it has really made the United States any safer. We think that the race to develop countermeasures to biological weapons might have actually increased the probability of a bioterrorist attack and made it more difficult to achieve the kind of international cooperation that can truly reduce this threat.

What exactly are these labs working on? Some are attempting to develop countermeasures against weapons that might be devised using the deadliest disease-causing microorganisms known. Others -- probably most -- are researching the microorganisms' basic biology to understand why they are so deadly and to find clues to new countermeasures. Still others are testing the preparation and dissemination of the microbes as weapons.

We hedge on the actual number and remain vague on their activities and locations because even Congress does not know. On Sept. 22, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) opened the oversight and investigations subcommittee he chairs by noting that two years after that information had been requested, it still had not been delivered.

And that is at the heart of the problem. As the United States has learned, often painfully, in recent years, haste and anger in the heat of disaster are not good shapers of policy for the most powerful country in the world. Virtually the entire national bioterrorism strategy has rested on the possibility that anyone with basic skills could weaponize deadly microbes -- rather than on the high probability that even skilled scientists could not actually do so -- and it is against these hypothetical scenarios that a substantial amount of federally funded biological research has been focused.

We certainly don't mean to suggest that the biological weapons threat isn't very real. The potential for future biowarfare is as awful as has been conjured. Achieving true security against such malevolent development and the parallel natural threats must be a major goal of every country, not just its policymakers but also its scientists and citizens.

However, the United States has attacked that essential goal by the wrong means, leaving the country less secure than it was $50 billion-plus ago. Americans are at greater risk from thieves targeting all those high-containment laboratories -- such as politically disaffected or mentally unbalanced lab workers -- and from the accidents that inevitably plague such facilities, than they are from an actual attack.

Let's consider a few accidents.

1. Three mice infected with plague bacteria disappeared from a high-security lab in Newark, N.J. Lab officials were certain it was an accounting error. Possibly, but if the mice in fact were on the loose, the surrounding low-income neighborhood escaped a potentially lethal plague outbreak.

2. Vials of "killed" anthrax bacteria were shipped from a Frederick, Md., laboratory to researchers in Oakland, Calif. Luckily, lab mice were the subjects being injected in hopes they might raise antibodies to the disease. They died. The anthrax had been live.

3. We must remember SARS. A coronavirus unknown until April 2003 spread out of China and through the world in weeks, killing 774 of 8,096 victims with severe acute respiratory syndrome. An unprecedented international effort halted it after just three months. However, subsequent, limited outbreaks began in high-security research labs in Asia, a fact underscored by World Health Organization expert Hitoshi Oshitani, who told the Associated Press that laboratories holding stocks of the human form of SARS were a more likely source of resurgence than the animals thought to originally harbor it.

We think such risks far outweigh the bioterrorism threat the United States faces.

To understand the scale of actual threat, it is worth considering the two categories of potential opponents against whom the burgeoning corps of scientists is working: terrorists and rogue nations, radically different in composition, aims, and abilities.

Bioterrorism occurred long before Amerithrax. In 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released the nerve gas sarin in a crowded Tokyo subway, leaving 12 dead and 50 seriously injured. Years earlier in Oregon, the Rajneeshee religious cult laced salad bars with salmonella bacteria, sickening more than 700 people -- but resulting in no deaths.

It is one step from those real-world events to a bioterrorist attack that would dwarf 9/11 -- rather, not a step but a leap of imagination. The probability of bioterrorists using botulin, anthrax, or another deadly agent is a realistic one, but to cause mass deaths the agents would have to be developed and weaponized, requiring considerable skill by well-trained scientists using classified methods.

A better bet would be to use the United States' own bioweapons research against it, just as the 9/11 hijackers managed to turn the American transportation infrastructure into a weapon. As biowarfare expert Richard Ebright of Rutgers University's Waksman Institute of Microbiology has argued, "If al Qaeda wished to carry out a bioweapons attack in the U.S., their simplest means of acquiring access to the materials and the knowledge would be to send individuals to train within programs involved in biodefense research."

What about enemy countries? Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds using chemical weapons and had biological weapons at the ready. But how could such a massive assault be carried out against a well-defended country? It's extremely unlikely that a country could deliver bioweapons or toxins both weaponized and in sufficient quantity to cause large-scale deaths in countries already armed against conventional bombers and nuclear missiles.

On the other hand, if such a program were going full-bore in a rogue nation, couldn't its highly sophisticated weapons be stolen by terrorists? Certainly, just as the deadly microbes behind them could be stolen in the United States. That and similar scenarios at the national level should be major concerns, and there is only one way to secure any or all countries against them: through multilateral activities such as international treaties that would place everyone's cards on the table, and open, international cooperation on defenses against all infectious diseases, natural and hostile.

Here again, the steps taken in the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks aren't helping. To many experts, the combination of massively funded experiments on dangerous pathogens and the obsessive secrecy in which they are cloaked gives the appearance, however false, that the United States is producing biological weapons. This would directly violate the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the international treaty that is the world's best hope for containing man-made biological threats.

Three of the country's most respected biosecurity experts have warned, "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 [BWC], are startling." James Leonard headed the U.S. delegation forging the BWC; Richard Spertzel is a former deputy director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases; and Milton Leitenberg is senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.

U.S. security against bioweapons can be won only by winning it globally. The United States has not been nearly active enough in this effort and at times has worked against it.

A protocol to the BWC proposed in 2001 would have moved the world toward greater oversight, transparency, and international cooperation on biological weapons -- the trinity of biosecurity. It would have provided for two categories of international on-site inspections: random visits to facilities whose peaceful processes could be turned to hostile ones, and focused inspections of facilities where hostile work was actually suspected.

The protocol was shot down by the Bush administration, which contended that malevolent activity would be missed, breeding a false sense of security; that the United States would be disclosing its vulnerabilities; and that industry secrets would be compromised. Suffice it to say that European countries with the same research and industries were uniformly strong supporters of the protocol, and U.S. vulnerabilities are on full display with every request for grant proposals to research countermeasures. Why not allow inspections?

Development of nuclear weaponry can be detected by satellite, that of bioweaponry cannot. But bioweapons are already banned, if they can be detected. Something like the protocol must be revived. Significant international transparency regarding BWC compliance requires allowing on-site visits to build confidence among countries that others are not developing biological weapons.

Without that confidence, the likelihood of a bioweapons arms race increases as countries seek to breed and package the world's deadliest microbes to outdo the havoc caused by natural disease alone. We can think of nothing deadlier to the world's future.

Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images

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