Concern over spread of biodefense labs

Grants to universities to study viruses such as Anthrax trouble communities.

While the hunt for "weapons of mass destruction" continues in Iraq, the United States is moving rapidly to counter the possibility of a biological attack here.

Congress and the President have added billions to the effort. Federal agencies are redoubling their efforts. University labs are hustling to win government research grants.

"We have moved with unprecedented speed and determination to prepare for a bioterror attack or any other public-health crisis ,since the attacks of 2001," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said recently. Secretary Thompson was announcing $350 million in federal grants to eight biodefense programs - most of them university-based - around the country.

But that speed and determination is seen by some as a dangerous rush that could in fact increase the risk of harm from biological agents at home and undermine international law abroad. As a result, critics in communities around the country are raising alarms, urging local leaders to resist new biodefense labs and filing lawsuits.

In Boston, a coalition of community groups has just announced plans to sue the Boston University Medical Center, which is bidding for federal funds to build a biodefense lab. Concerned about health and safety risks, opponents say BU's plan violates state environmental laws.

"We have repeatedly requested, and been denied, information and a real dialogue about the threats posed by the lab," says Klare Allen, an organizer with Alternatives for Community & Environment in Boston. "Now we go to court to stop the project."

Citing US environmental law, community groups in California and New Mexico are suing to stop the expansion of biodefense facilities at federal- government laboratories in those states. The city council in Davis, Calif., has gone on record as opposing efforts by the University of California there to obtain federal funding for biodefense research.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has been fighting freedom-of-information requests for details of its biodefense research.

"What I'm trying to do here is set what could be become national transparency standards in [federally funded] labs," says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a biotechnology watchdog organization in Austin. So far, the Texas Attorney General has sided with those urging transparency.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports in its current issue that 30 expanded or new biodefense facilities are being considered nationwide with more than a half-dozen federal agencies, plus universities around the country, involved. In some cases, labs will be upgraded to handle even more hazardous bacteria, viruses, and other hazardous substances.

The expanded program "will lead to new and improved therapies, vaccines, diagnostics, and other tools," says Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Nations that signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1975 (including the US) are prohibited from researching offensive biological weapons. Such countries may do limited defensive research. But critics say such research is inherently dual-use, meaning it has to involve test quantities of potential bioweapon substances such as anthrax.

Not long after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, suspicious episodes in Washington and seven states along the East Coast of the United States caused 22 cases of anthrax, including 5 deaths. There remains some suspicion that those anthrax attacks involved a substance and an individual associated with a government biodefense program.

"With biological weapons, the line between offense and defense is exceedingly difficult to draw," says Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland, Calif., which monitors weapons programs. That line is defined by intent, others say, not by technology or equipment.

Citizens groups in New Mexico and California recently filed suit to halt biodefense experiments at US Department of Energy (DOE) labs in those states. The Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have plans to include work on biowarfare agents.

Critics say the labs need thorough environmental analysis before work on the facilities can begin. They point to problems with radioactive leaks and the handling of bioagents in the past. In May, Energy Department inspector general Gregory Friedman testified that Los Alamos "could not provide adequate assurance that classified, sensitive, or proprietary information was appropriately protected."

For their part, lab officials say their studies of the new facilities - issued as "Findings of No Significant Impact" - show that any environmental effect would be minimal even though Lawrence Livermore lies in an area of earthquake fault lines and Los Alamos has faced major wildfires.

That's not enough assurance for some. Marylia Kelley, head of the California citizens group asserts that the DOE granted itself the go-ahead "without conducting thorough analysis of the risks."

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