Boston was only the beginning. With so many biodefense labs being built across the country, you can expect to see more news like the weekend's revelation that three Boston University lab workers were infected with tularemia, or rabbit fever.Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, the federal government has been pouring money into labs that research the deadliest of bioagents. "Currently there are four [maximum security] Biosafety Level 4 laboratories nationwide, with six more planned," the New York Times notes. "50 laboratories operate at Biosafety Level 3, sufficient to work with anthrax, and 19 more are planned at universities and government institutions, according to the Sunshine Project, a Texas group that is tracking the growth."With these labs flowering so quickly, "hundreds of inexperienced researchers [are being drawn] into work with hazardous organisms," the Times adds. Security is being compromised, as a result.
In 2002, the discovery of lethal anthrax outside a high-security laboratory at the military's premier biodefense laboratory, the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, led to sampling throughout the institute. Investigators found three different strains of anthrax bacteria outside the sealed-off laboratories, indicating at least that many leaks, according to an Army report.Then, last spring, Southern Research Institute, a contractor in Frederick, Md., shipped anthrax bacteria to an Oakland, Calif., hospital after immersing it in hot water to kill the germs. When mice injected with the supposedly harmless bacteria for a vaccine experiment quickly died, researchers realized the bacteria were still lethal.The list goes on. "A US Army-funded biosafety level three lab in Tennessee that holds biological weapons agents... hasn't had an Army biosafety inspection in three years," the Sunshine Project notes. Tulane University, which runs a similar center, hasn't convened its biosafety committee in years. Since 1998, the safety group at Rockefeller University in New York City "has met exactly twice," according to the Project.Now, all of this might be perfectly acceptable, if these labs were really helping to save lives. But that's a questionable proposition, at best. Because many of the agents being investigated at these labs are only marginal threats to public health.These bioagents are notoriously difficult to turn into weapons. And, with a deliberate spread, they aren't hurting that many people. There are only 130 cases per year of tularemia. Smallpox isn't infecting anyone these days. And the anthrax that killed five people in 2001 -- that probably came from one of these biodefense centers."Compare that to a real biological killer, like tuberculosis," I suggested in a 2003 Tech Central Station article.
It ends the life of more than 2 million people every year. But the federal government is "luring researchers away" from scientific research into TB and other infections of mass destruction, notes Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, with the Federation of American Scientists.UCLA's Dr. Marcus Howritz was "on the cusp of real progress" in developing a better TB vaccine, Merrill Goozner reports in this month's American Prospect. Now he's been diverted into working on a barely-lethal biological agent.Nancy Connell, who heads a Pentagon-funded bio-defense lab in Newark, NJ, doesn't think a biological strike is all that likely. But she takes grants to study smallpox and anthrax, because she can use the same research funds to work on flu and TB, which "actuall do kill people," she notes.