Military biodefense labs try to look safe

Civilian scientists are still trying to get used to the hysterical nonsense around "biodefense" that the homeland security apparatchiks imposed as Act I. in their Security Theater, bullshit that included indicting an artist and a respected scientist for shipping a harmless bacterium (see here, here). Meanwhile the Army has claimed the only serious bioterror attack on US soil with actual biowarfare agents was done by one of their guys. Whether it was the guy they fingered or not we may never know, since he conveniently is dead, but whether he was or wasn't the claim has revealed they operate with the usual principle of authoritarian regimes: do as we say, not as we do:

US Navy and Air Force officials recently reported a suspension of work in their biodefense laboratories to allow a thorough review of safety procedures, following the Army's announcement in early August that it would review security measures at the lab that housed the work of the late Bruce E. Ivins, whom federal officials believe played a role in the 2001 anthrax attacks.


Officials from the Navy and Air Force said they were temporarily stopping shipments of bioterror agents coming in and out of their research facilities, according to an Aug 22 report from the Associated Press (AP). The stoppage will allow the military branches to review safety rules, including how they are shipped through civilian delivery services such as Federal Express.

Navy and Air Force authorities also told the AP that they wouldn't allow their employees to work with "select agents" unless they enroll in a special program that allows them clearance or their work is supervised by another employee who is enrolled in the program. (Lisa Schnirring, CIDRAP News)

That's great. Federal Express? And their employees haven't been trained? The Navy labs are the NAMRU labs in United States, Peru, Egypt, and Indonesia, the ones that handle bird flu viruses. The Army has 6 labs, the Air Force two. Given that the Homeland Security nutcases make such a big deal about the danger of these agents, they are now worried that ordinary people (and Congress) will draw the reasonable conclusion that what they are doing isn't safe either. In order to make sure they can continue to do whatever they want with whatever they want and keep building the new facility at Fort Detrick (the site where the FBI now says a mentally unstable scientist worked with biowarfare agents for years without any body raising the least bit of alarm), these guys are putting the whole system through a security review to finally make sure everything is as safe as they told it was finally sure it was before they started making finally sure it was safe once again:

The interagency lab, which is under construction, will also house lab facilities for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Pat Fitch, lab director for the DHS lab, which is set to open next year, said officials hope to finalize safety rules by February and will ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to review them, the Frederick, Md., News Post reported yesterday.

Oh, good. They are asking the guys who sealed the door of their high containment lab with duct tape to pass on their procedures. I feel better now.

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By Serjis Werking (not verified) on 28 Aug 2008 #permalink

Bio terrorism threat is negligible.
We are at greater risk now than we were on Sept. 12th 2001 due to the proliferation of labs housing potential bio weapons.

Given the MO of, and presumed level of viral genetics capabilities of, terrorist organisations please answer the following multiple-choice questions.
1] Terrorists bent on the use of a bio weapon are
a) Likely to set up a lab to genetically modify pathogens.
b) Attack a lab housing pathogens (or just blow it up and hope some escape).
2] Housing dangerous pathogens at a greatly increase number of labs has
a) Made us more secure
b) Made us less secure.
3] It is best to spend funds earmarked bio-terrorism by
a) Building lots of level3/4 labs to research the genetics of dangerous pathogens
b) Improving the infrastructure for the surveillance of communicable disease outbreaks and beefing up primary healthcare.

If you answered 'a' to all questions I should try for a job in politics of possibly military intelligence if 'b' then science may suit you.

As someone who spent a few hours in the "sub" at USAMRIID (though it never happened), you'd think that I would be all about "2.b" above. But I'm not. I think that housing and studying those little sons of bitches (pardon my French) teaches us about other things. You need those crazy scientists who sniff Ebola out of the tube because the next big wild virus is just around the corner (think: SARS), and someone's got to know something about them. But I'm all about the surveillance (my current job), and the primary healthcare (my fiancee's current job)... And what can I say about making these places as secure and bomb-proof (read: "the hive" in the Resident Evil movies) as we possibly can? We must, if only to protect the lives of the scientists themselves.

Ren: I am not against research at all - very much in favour - but a balance needs to struck. The rate of increase in BL3/4 labs is running ahead of the number of people who are experienced in their operation. And I am not convinced the extended distribution is not the greater risk from either deliberate or accidental release. The amount of time and money spent on anthrax would be much better spent devising a quick, cheap and easy test for H5N1 so we have a hope of diagnosing case zero from the background of other tropical disease with similar symptoms. Now this really is a project worth throwing money at.

Some years ago, David Friedman made the point that when people worried about new technology leading to terrible weapons in the hands of private individuals (he was talking about nanotech), they overlooked the fact that the nastiest weapons were developed and tested and engineered by governments, and then typically fell into the hands of the individual nuts and random terrorists. The official story on the Anthrax case bears this out. (It doesn't matter whether Ivins did it or not, as long as the spores came from a US government lab.)

Most people aren't going to pay you to develop really effective ways to wipe out the human population, to sicken an entire city, or even to make really effective mail bombs (which the anthrax letters weren't). Assuming this takes a bit of money, facilities, time, and effort, it's a lot easier for this stuff to be developed when someone too strong to stop is openly funding it, than when Al Qaida is trying to slip a bit of cash to a true believer with a strong biology background, working in a homemade lab he set up in a trailer somewhere.

This is true for nukes, chemical weapons, and many related things. The folks paying for the development of most of these weapons, including the science side, but also the engineering/production side that makes them practical to manufacture and use in combat, are the governments (like ours) that allegedly are protecting us from the threat.

I'm not sure how to deal with that. We clearly need some expertise in kinds of weapons that might be used against us, and in the world as it is, we certainly need the development of effective weapons. But that's inherently subject to misuse, by the government, by its employees, and by random others who get hold of the technology after it's been developed, and so manage to kill thousands instead of tens because they could just read up on how to get the spores to stay airborne for a long time, not clump up or be killed while being spread across a large volume, not to be killed during processing, etc.

By albatross (not verified) on 29 Aug 2008 #permalink

Its only a matter of time before something like ice-9 gets loosed with unintended consequences...