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Experts Debate Efficiency of US Biosafety Effort - 2004-05-21

A congressionally appointed committee looking into the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which killed almost 3,000 people, is expected to issue a report this summer. In the wake of the attack, fears of other kinds of terrorism began to rise, including attacks by terrorists using biological weapons.

In response to these fears, the U.S. government funded a number of extremely highly secure laboratories to handle the world's deadliest pathogens. While biodefense officials say the facilities are necessary to protect Americans, one critic says the highest containment labs pose a terrorist danger in and of themselves.

About a month after the al-Qaida attacks, someone sent anthrax spores through the U.S. mail, killing five people. The person who did this has never been caught.

Shortly after this incident, the U.S. National Institutes of Health awarded Boston University and the University of Texas $120 million each to establish maximum-security containment facilities to study the deadliest pathogens and nerve agents known to man.

Among other things, the labs are developing rapid identification mechanisms, ways to treat individuals who have been exposed to agents such as smallpox and sarin gas, and vaccines.

The anthrax placed inside the envelopes was traced to a biosafety laboratory, with top-level security, in Fort Detrich, Maryland.

Everyone agrees that whoever was responsible for the deadly attack knew what they were doing. What's debated is whether it was done by a disgruntled scientist inside the laboratory.

Biosafety expert CJ Peters says, ?I don't think anybody knows who disseminated the anthrax,? Mr. Peters said. ?If it was somebody from Fort Detrich and we knew it, why isn't somebody in jail??

Mr. Peters is director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases at the University of Texas in Galveston, one of the two schools that received money to fund biosafety facilities.

Though Mr. Peters is dismayed that the Fort Detrich laboratory was implicated in the attack. He firmly believes in the need for biosafety laboratories. That view is not shared by all experts, like Louise Richardson, in the fight against terrorism.

?This money is not well spent if the purpose is to protect us against a terrorist attack,? he said.

International terrorism expert Louise Richardson of Radcliffe University in Massachusetts does not believe biosafety facilities make Americans safer.

?By creating these labs, we are in fact significantly increasing the number of people who would be competent to deploy these weapons,? he said. ?The one experience we do have in this country, which is the anthrax attack, did in fact emanate from one of these biosafety labs. So I am suggesting that by actually increasing the number of people competent in their use, we are increasing the probability that there will be people sympathetic to terrorist organizations. So we might be increasing the threat in that respect.?

In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Professor Richardson says terrorists have typically gone after soft targets - using crude weapons against people and places that are hard to pin down - because chemical and biological weapons are hard to achieve.

She points to the only other case, besides anthrax, of a bioterror attack, in which a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, killed 12 people in a sarin gas assault in 1995. They did that after years of trying to create a biological weapon with no success, and turned to an easier chemical weapon.

In Professor Richardson's view, the money spent on U.S. biosafety facilities should be redirected toward eliminating existing nuclear, biological and chemical stockpiles under a joint U.S.-Russian program called Cooperative Threat Reduction.

?What we should be doing is dealing with the existing supplies of these deadly weapons in the former Soviet Union,? said Mr. Richardson. ?We know they exist. We have a largely underfunded program for their elimination. And I think the money would be better spent addressing the stockpiles we know to exist rather than creating new ones.?

Dr. Peters agrees that more ought to be done to secure weapons in the former Soviet Union, but he bristles at the notion that the money that funds the secure U.S. biosecurity labs ought to be redirected to Cold War stockpiles.

?I don't like this argument of you should do this, instead of that,? Dr. Peters said. ?What's worth doing? I mean I could make the argument that the money that's spent to fund the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts should be used to go into this Cooperative Threat Reduction program. I mean I don't think we should get into this game. The question is, what's worthwhile??

The U.S. government has poured almost $2 billion into biodefense since September 11, 2001.

Biosafety officials say the money is needed to build containment labs to handle the deadliest agents known to man - agents that could be in the hands of enemies outside, or inside, the United States.