Monday, October 26, 2009

ARCHIVE: As Bush threatens Iraq with nukes, US ramps up its own biowarfare research

It was originally published on the Center for Research on Globalisation on December 26, 2002.

When I booted up my AOL account on the morning of December 11th, I was greeted by the picture of someone in a gas mask and the headline: "You gas us; We'll nuke you!" Bad as that was, the headline on West County Times was worse: "Pre-emptive nuke strike a possibility." The San Francisco Chronicle banner headline was even pithier: Bush Doctrine: Hit First.

But while George W. Bush threatens Iraq, the United States is expanding its own biowarfare research programs. The government plans to increase the number of biohazard safety level (BSL) 3 and 4 labs around the United States. BSL 3 labs handle live anthrax, botulism, and bubonic plague, among many other things. BSL 4 labs conduct research on an array of even deadlier organisms, including smallpox and Ebola virus.

Steve Erickson, director of the Citizens' Education Project in Salt Lake City, Utah said, "This expansion of laboratory capacity within the Defense Department and other departments of government has been in the works for a number of years, probably dating to about 1995. Certainly, the intensity and speed of these developments is picked up since 9/11/2001. The last count we had was about 14 [labs] that were being proposed in various locations by any one of four Cabinet level departments within the US Government. There are some indications now that the National Institutes of Health will be backing off in terms of the numbers of Biological Safety Level Four laboratories, but intends instead to renovate and perhaps build additional Biological Level Three laboratories."

The Department of Energy wants to build a BSL-3 facility at its Los Alamos lab in New Mexico. On December 16th, the DOE released the final Environmental Assessment of plans to build a BSL-3 lab at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, in the San Francisco suburbs. DOE issued a "Finding of No Significant Impact" for construction of this new facility. Additionally, Lawrence Livermore (LLNL) plans to be a partner in developing The Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases, a BSL-4 facility slated for the University of California – Davis.

Why put high containment microbiology labs at nuclear facilities, such as Los Alamos and LLNL?

One might think the ready answer is that at the nuclear weapons lab security measures were already in place that would safeguard the community against accidents or terrorist attacks. But when I posed the question to John Bellardo, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, he did not offer even that much substance. Instead, he said, after a long pause, "There is no apparent problem with locating the biosafety level three facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. All of the potential ramifications were examined in the environmental assessment and it was determined that it does not pose any undue harm or potential threat to the human health or the environment."  Bellardo also said that a contract had been let for the construction of a prefabricated building to house the new facility. Construction should be completed by late summer or early fall of 2003.

The real reason for putting a high containment microbiology lab in a nuclear research facility may be to duck oversight protocols. Prof. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Chair of the Working Group on Biological Weapons of the Federation of American Scientists, said "when various types of weapons are being researched at the same place, it means that if there is any kind of oversight or investigation or inspection of one type, it puts at risk classified information about the others. And this is a reason why this government frequently objects to any kind of oversight. And this is also, in my view, a reason why different kinds of weapons research should be conducted at different locations, rather than piling them all in the same place."

What might government microbiologists be researching that they wouldn't want to have subject to inspection?
Robert Gould, MD, incoming president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, is concerned that the US may be breaching the Biological Weapons Convention, which limits research to defensive purposes, by genetically modifying anthrax. "This is a threat of developing offensive capabilities," Dr. Gould said, "because you're modifying an organism to be resistant to antibiotics and therefore increasing its capability to be a weapon."

Dr. Gould's concerns are borne out by several documents. LLNL, which already has a BSL-2 lab, has acknowledged in a "Frequently Asked Questions" list that it would be working with anthrax in the BSL-3 lab and that it has been "working with 25 different strains of anthrax since Spring 2000 as part of our regular program work for the National Nuclear Security Administration's Chemical and Biological National Security Program."

The draft environmental assessment for the proposed lab says that current plans call for the facility to handle the DNA and RNA of a wide array of organisms. The lab could also engage in the chemical separation of DNA, RNA and proteins, and in sample amplification, which the assessment defines as "the process to rapidly and significantly increase the number of microorganisms in a sample." The environmental assessment also states that "the proposed facility would have the unique capability within DOE/NNSA to perform aerosol studies to include challenges of rodents using infectious agents or biologically derived toxins (biotoxins)."

While George W. Bush compels the Iraqis to bare all in connection with its weapons programs, what biological horrors is the American government cooking up in the secrecy of its own labs?