Why I object to Boston University's proposed 'bioterror' research laboratory

February 11, 2005

It is the best of times and the worst of times as the reign of bioterror tightens its grip on the US science academy. And recent events at Boston University perfectly symbolise the dual nature of this new age.

It was the best of times when the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded the university $128 million (£70 million) to construct a high-containment laboratory in which work on some of the world's most dangerous organisms will be carried out. The money has come from the drastically ramped-up funding stream for biodefence - a centrepiece of the Bush Administration's "homeland security" strategy.

But it was also the worst of times when, last spring, two laboratory workers contracted the acute infectious disease tularaemia while working in an existing facility on a vaccine against this potential agent of biowarfare. The incident was recognised only in the autumn after another worker fell ill. All have now recovered. But the university, engaged in delicate negotiations over the proposed laboratory, did not disclose the infections for two weeks to health authorities and not at all to the public.

As an epidemiologist, I initially supported plans for the laboratory. I risked alienating friends and colleagues by speaking out, reasoning that we needed sound scientific information on emerging infectious diseases such as avian influenza. In a tightly interconnected world, nobody is safe from communicable disease until we are all safe.

But I became opposed when it became apparent that the facility was likely to be a research and development laboratory driven by biodefence obligations. It would no longer pursue a public health agenda, and I began to doubt, on the basis of funding constraints, assurances that there would be no classified work carried out there.

Furthermore, across-the-board cuts in social services, including public health programmes such as substance abuse and influenza immunisation, meant that money earmarked for unlikely events such as anthrax attacks was producing wholesale shifts in personnel assignments. Priorities and planning became terribly distorted.

I now also believe that the biodefence agenda itself could put us more at risk in the event of a biological weapons attack. First, there is the risk of an accident such as the tularaemia cases, which occurred when there was a mix-up over cell culture and laboratory workers took "short cuts" in procedures. It is a characteristic episode - an error compounded by the human element.

Accidents at the most secure facilities have resulted in the deaths of staff. Severe acute respiratory syndrome also got out of a high-containment facility in Taiwan when a researcher became ill.

Second, if scientists are to pursue a biodefence agenda, by necessity they have to create the very novel pathogens they fear - there is no other efficient way to fashion the diagnostic kits, detectors, therapeutic drugs and vaccines that are their objective.

You cannot do such work in a garage or in an apartment in Hamburg. It takes great technical expertise, many years of work and sophisticated equipment.

All these things are provided in such specialist laboratories, along with the possibility of obtaining an agent that otherwise would not exist.

Third, such facilities have all the hallmarks of an offensive weapons research facility: animal quarters, aerosol exposure areas and high containment. Friend and foe will want to cover their bets by creating a counter facility, stimulating a biological arms race.

The claims that this money is being provided for much-needed public health infrastructure and that we face a grave threat that can be addressed only by building laboratories of this kind are untrue.

The pity is that the US academic establishment has so willingly swallowed the lies.

David Ozonoff
Professor of environmental health
Boston University School of Public Health

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