05.18.09

Locals Stymie Bioterror Defense Lab

Posted in Bioterrorism, War On Terror at 2:47 am by George Smith

“[A $198 million biodefense] lab complex stands completed between an apartment building and a flower market [in Roxbury]” reported the Los Angeles Times on the frontpage today. “But state and federal lawsuits by anxious residents backed by skeptical scientists, have blocked the opening [of the Boston-based lab] until late next year at the earliest,” reported the LA Times on its frontpage today.

“The battle marks the first major setback in the vast growth since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks of labs authorized to research the world’s most dangerous diseases.”

That big daily newspapers are finally getting around to acknowledging that a problem may exist with such an expansion — and that reasonable people are actively opposing it — is a remarkable change from the state of affairs two years ago.

What the Los Angeles Times does not yet understand (and, perhaps by extension, its reporter — Bob Drogin) or is unwilling to say, is that the most logical problem associated with such labs are not those mentioned most prominently in the article: that anthrax or Ebola will escape into the local community or that “hot strains in the labs may attract terrorists…”

The problem is one that has already been demonstrated twice: reliability and the nature of the enemy from within.

There have been only two malicious events associated with biological agents during the war on terror. Both came from within the US. And both were associated with labs working within the bioterror defense infrastructure.

The obvious stand-out is the story of the anthrax mailer, Bruce Ivins, working from the heart of the biodefense industry at Fort Detrick in Maryland where he was the caretaker of the gold standard in anthrax spore cultures and privy to the inner details of the investigation which would eventually drive him to commit suicide.

The other case involved simple greed from the US cosmetic surgery industry. In this little-publicized instance, two scam artists commissioned a research laboratory called List, located in Campbell, CA, to make purified botulinum toxin. That lab was part of the US government’s select agent control regime, one designed to oversee the production of materials thought to be of practical use to terrorists.

Purified botulinum toxin was sold without due diligence and then used by the scam artists to make money through de-wrinkling treatments, undercutting the price of treatments using Botox, the only botulinum toxin drug — made by Allergan — licensed for use on patients in this country.

That story is told here in “Dr. Frankenstein’s cure for aging.”

The scam would have worked if four people had not come down with such severe cases of botulism they required long-term hospitalization. If not for care on life-support, they would have died, making the death toll from misuse of American-made botulinum toxin, one less than the anthraxer’s — who used American-made anthrax. And so it stands to reason that putting more and more people in positions where they are working on, or responsible for, the most dangerous biological agents increases risk to the American public, even if that risk is not precisely measurable. And, if recent history is to serve as an example, such risk is demonstrably real and not to be pooh-poohed.

“Critics of the labs cite the 2001 anthrax attacks as proof that gates and guards cannot stop an insider who aims to do harm,” continues Drogin.

What the Los Angeles Times story does show is there is not a natural enthusiasm among all citizens for yet another bioterror defense laboratory, once they understand all the ramifications of it. They may also instinctively understand that Biodefense Research Corp/University USA is also not much of big-time employer for everybody, like General Motors or Ford in Michigan in their heyday. And so their economic value to any community is not yet proven to be significant.


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