It's not too late to join the bioterror gold rush
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Analysis "If ramping up fear among American's about the threat of biological warfare was intended, in part, to drum up support for biodefense spending - as some conspiracy buffs theorize - then the downside is that accidents may result in an overreaction in the public and the media," reported The Fort Worth Star Telegram in a business story a couple months back.
The piece in question was eminently pro-business, written from the point of view that all bioterror research was good. Anyone who questioned the scope of it was a bit misinformed. The only critic was Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, based in Texas.
Hammond had obtained documentation from Texas A&M University's biodefense research facility and published it. This work revealed accidents in the labs: the release of Brucella bacteria, which caused illness in one research assistant, and exposure to the agent which causes Q fever, causing immune responses, but no illness, in three others. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control moved in, investigated, and then suspended biodefense research at the school.
What was left out of the article was that Hammond's Sunshine Project mailing list had been reporting for some time prior to the Texas A&M incidents - entrenched secrecy and general unwillingness to submit to oversight on the part of the growing number of US university laboratories involved in biodefense research.
The newspaper asked whether Hammond's point - "that the greatest threat is not going to be a guy in a turban but in our own biochemical lab" - was valid or if he was "an overzealous self-appointed whistleblower..."
The rest of the article furnished statements only from scientists with vested interests in promoting biodefense research. They offered flavors of the famous excuse from Dr Strangelove in which Buck Turgidson defensively responds to the president's denunciation of the Air Force's failure to screen out psychotics: "I don't think it's fair to condemn a whole program for a single slip-up, sir."
Ronald Kendall, a scientist at Texas Tech, was corralled by the Ft Worth paper to say the Texas A&M incidents were "unfortunate" and that it was "a barometer of society that when an organization or university makes a mistake, we're all lumped together".
Support for such a view hinged on everyone accepting the accidents at Texas A&M as isolated occurrences. That was tossed into the wastebin by news a month later, in early October, that lab accidents in the academic biodefense research community were more commonplace.
According to AP, there were 36 secret accidents and lost shipments in 2007, 100 accidents and missing shipments with more being investigated in total, since 2003.
The news of routine mishaps and lack of accountability was clustered around an investigative hearing into such matters before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations/Committee on Energy and Commerce in the House of Representatives.
For its part at the hearing, the biodefense research academy contributed only pro forma mouthpieces: Eddie Davis, the interim president of Texas A&M, the school in the hot seat; and Gigi Kwik Gronvall from the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.
The most pressing observations from the session did not emanate from them.
Instead it was left to Keith Rhodes of the Government Accounting Office and others, including Hammond, to show that biodefense in academia was going through a large and unmonitored boom, with high-containment labs being added across the country in anticipation of future work. And the expansion has not yet peaked.
"No single agency has the mission to track and determine the risk associated with the expansion of [high containment] labs in the United States and no single federal agency knows how many such labs there are," wrote Rhodes in a GAO report offered as print testimony. "[No] one is responsible for the aggregate risks associated with the expansion of these high-containment labs."
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