Banging the drum for Bio-defense

Planted off the coast of Long Island, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has tangled with the world’s most voracious viruses since it started crafting plagues for Russia’s livestock 50 years ago. While the Nazi scientists and the overtly offensive biological programs they were recruited to pioneer have mostly faded into history, Plum’s agricultural defense work continues – for now.

Over the next few years, however, U.S. Homeland Security hopes to shutter the center and replace it with a monstrous 520,000-square-foot, high-security complex at a more inland location. San Antonio’s Texas Research Park is a leading contender for the gem of germ-work.

The proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would be charged with guarding both the U.S. public and the farm animals they love from biological attack.

Local tech leaders are so smitten by the project, its $451-million price tag, and expected billions in economic blowback, that they’ve already spent $500,000 on lawyers and public-relations specialists, according to John Kerr, president of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research.

It’s paid off with consistently positive coverage in the San Antonio Express-News and a unified field of cheerleaders. Perry and Cornyn, Ciro and Charlie, all have come out chanting the N-BAF cheer.

“The emergence of San Antonio as a major center for this kind of work, I think, would be validated in a very nationally prominent way,” Kerr said.

The Foundation is one of several research groups pushing for N-BAF through the Texas Biological & Agro-Defense Consortium, which includes UTSA, Brooks Development Authority, Texas Research and Technology Foundation, and the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

While biotech has exploded in SA over the last decade, landing N-BAF would launch this old military outpost into the Big League, allowing headhunters to reel in companies from “way on up the food chain,” according to David Marquez, executive director of Bexar County Economic Development.

The smell of bio-boodle is everywhere.

High Containment Labs and Other Facilities of the U.S. Bio-defense Program High Containment Labs and
Other Facilities of the U.S. Bio-defense Program 

Rift Valley fever, foot-and-mouth, and Japanese encephalitis – N-BAF workers would be studying and manipulating some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens at a time when news of lab lapses appears to be everywhere. But so far the only significant discussion the proposal has provoked locally has to do with money and jobs.

Around the country, an estimated 20,000 researchers are happily screening, splicing, and sequencing bad bacteria. It’s a growth industry, with an estimated $40 billion dedicated to biodefense research alone since 9/11. Of course, some do it more safely than others. Just ask the former research veep at A&M, dismissed after an Austin watchdog group exposed the 2006 infection of one lab worker with brucellosis and the exposure of several others to Q-fever.

Then there is the outbreak of highly contagious foot-and-mouth this month in the UK that has been linked back to vaccines created at one of two nearby Surrey research labs.

These are just two of the most recent lab scandals to rock the bio-defense boat (see Exposure Timeline, next page).

N-BAF, boosters say, would be beyond making such mistakes. Protections and redundancy schemes would be “built-in,” says Jean Patterson, chair of virology at the Southwest Foundation.

“People are always worried about plumes coming out of a lab. That isn’t what happens. This is not a nuclear bomb. We work with minute quantities in a containment facility under a biological safety cabinet.”

The risks? “I don’t see any,” she said.

Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, reports several cases of worker exposure and dozens of missing pathogen agents, including anthrax and Ebola.

New Scientist reports that DNA sequencing of anthrax used in the 2001 U.S. mail attacks that killed five came from a U.S. military installation – “most likely” Ft. Detrick.  Meanwhile, two Detrick workers test positive for anthrax.
Package containing West Nile Virus being shipped from the Ohio Department of Health to a researcher at UT explodes at a Federal Express facility near Port Columbus International Airport.

Texas Tech prof Thomas Butler found guilty on three charges related to his unapproved international and domestic travel with plague samples and later loss of 30 vials of plague culture.
Three scientists at Boston University are infected with tularemia and dozens of others are exposed.

Southern Research Institute mistakenly sends live anthrax samples through the mail, exposing seven scientists at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, Calif.
Three mice infected with the plague virus go missing from a New Jersey lab.

A researcher at Texas A&M is infected with brucellosis and several others are exposed to Q-fever. Not reported until 2007.
Foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK linked to vaccines being developed at one of two nearby agricultural research labs.

(Source: U.S. news accounts and the Council for Responsible Genetics)

Our forbears leapt into modernity with the epiphany that the power of excrement greatly increased when delivered on the front end of an arrowpoint or spear.

From this intoxicating moment, dizzying centuries of warfare unfolded like a pox-infested blanket. In marched plague-riddled corpses launched by catapult, mustard gas in machine-gun-strafed trenches, and subway ricin attacks.

Before we could catch ourselves, the U.S. was selling anthrax, nerve gas, and West Nile virus to Baghdad’s “butcher.” Of course, these chemical and biological agents had been thoughtfully developed in accord with 1972’s Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and were solely defensive in nature, not “weapons” per se.

George Annas, chair of Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights at Boston University questions the explosion of bio-defense labs in recent years and the ethics behind creating new viruses – part of any true biodefense work.

“It’s not really a ‘bio-defense’ lab if it’s not trying to anticipate future biological weapons – and develop defenses against them,” he said. “In this regard, the major difference between making biological weapons and developing countermeasures to them is the amount of the agent – existing or new – you create.”

Patterson agrees the definitions blur – though she vigorously defends the work.

“It is a fine line, and no one will deny that,” she said, “but the U.S. isn’t interested in making an offensive weapon, and certainly neither are we.”

What is being debated is risk. In recent years, the labs have proven themselves more dangerous than the fundamentalist horde or so-called rogue states.

Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, the group that exposed A&M’s recent coverup of worker exposures, complains that the federal government has yet to conduct an actual needs assessment to show how many and what types of biodefense labs the nation needs.

“One really unfortunate effect of what we’re doing building these labs … they take a lot of money to keep them running. When we realize fundamentalist terrorists pose a far lesser threat than we anticipated we’ll still be funneling billions into the industry,” Hammond said.

Karl Grossman, now a journalism professor in New York, started writing about Plum Island as a reporter in the 1970s, just in time to scratch out an item about an outbreak of foot-and-mouth among the island’s cattle population. At the time, he was intensely critical of the need for the installation that some had dubbed “Frankenstein’s Castle.”

While the devastation of 9/11 changed his perspective on the need for the lab, it also made him and many others acutely aware of the risks the public faces from any attack on it.

Others, such as Michael Carroll, author of Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, say San Antonians should push for the basic protections that Plum lost.

“Just ask them and compel them to follow the same three aspects of security that they followed in 1954 that all but went away in the succeeding 40 years,” he said.

Considering Plum documents were discovered with a bin Laden associate in Afghanistan after U.S. Forces invaded, according to both Newsweek and Carroll’s book, would 24-hour armed patrols, restricted airspace, and fully protected shipments be too much to ask?

The anti-terror gang at Homeland Security is hosting a public hearing on the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to determine what issues you locals want considered before they steam ahead and plant their flag at Texas Research Park.

The theater begins at 7 p.m., September 11, and will be held at the Marriott Plaza, 555 S. Alamo Street, San Antonio. Registration to speak opens at 6 p.m.

Alternative sites still being considered for N-BAF include Manhattan, Kansas; Athens, Georgia; Butner, North Carolina; and Flora, Mississippi. Homeland Security will also consider expanding the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, as well as the eternal “No Action” alternative.

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