We’ve argued before that the US biodefense laboratory effort — whose planning principle seems to be based on “more” — was making us less safe, not more safe. Whatever else you say about the anthrax attacks, they are a perfect illustration of this. The weapon and the culprit(s) came directly from the US weapons labs. A case of blowback if there ever was one. But the Bush administration, undeterred, wants to keep building these facilities. The highest level of containment for working with the most dangerous agents for which there is no vaccine or cure (BSL4 labs) were four in number in 2002. Now there are 15. Labs designated BSL3, despite their slightly lower level of containment, often handle even more dangerous agents like SARS, 1918 and avian influenza and anthrax. No one knows exactly how many there are but at the end of last year the GAO counted over 1350. When Boston University was chosen for one of the BSL4 facilities the main rationale was that Boston was the epicenter of world class biological scientists, not just at BU but Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, Boston College, University of Massachusetts, Northeastern, etc., etc. Pretty impressive. But the government needn’t have bothered, especially as the neighborhood around the laboratory wants it about as much as they want a stink bomb factory. Because now they have proposed putting another mega laboratory to look at animal diseases in Flora, Mississippi:
The Mississippi location is among five finalists under consideration for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The $451-million lab will replace an existing facility on Plum Island, off New York’s Long Island, for studies under secure conditions of dangerous and potentially costly animal diseases.
The other four finalist sites are Athens, Ga.; Butner, N.C.; Manhattan, Kan.; and San Antonio, Tex. All five are located near and are supported by universities that would participate in the research. The department is expected to pick one of the sites by October.
Government experts worried that the proposed site in Flora, 20 miles northwest of Jackson, Miss., was located far from existing biodefense-research programs and lacked ready access to qualified scientists, the AP reported. Evaluators ranked the site 14th among 17 candidates. (Other host institutions that failed to make the short list included the Universities of Missouri at Columbia and Wisconsin at Madison.) (Chronicle for Higher Education)
I’m sure there were other good reasons to choose Mississippi, though. Reasons like this:
The AP suggested that the department’s inclusion of an industrial park in Flora, Miss., stemmed at least in part from the clout of two lawmakers from that state. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, and Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, are senior members of Congressional panels that oversee the agency.
Mr. Thompson graduated from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University, both of which belong to a consortia backing the Mississippi site. Representative Thompson, who is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told the AP he had not discussed the finalist sites with Mr. Cohen, but the AP reported that in fact he did, at least twice since February 2007.
I’m not going to complain that this crass cronyism puts national security at risk because I never thought the whole stupid biodefense non-program had anything to do with with national security in the first place. Unfortunately, like a lot of unthought out incompetently implemented of this administration it’s not just a waste of money but something that actually endangers us. It’s not clear highly contagious animal viruses like foot and mouth disease (FMD) formerly done at the Plum Island laboratory in New York can safely be worked on anywhere on the mainland.
Well, maybe Flora, Mississippi. What could happen there?