Why Senator Lugar Is Worried about Bioterrorism in East Africa

By Pflanz, Mike | The Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Why Senator Lugar Is Worried about Bioterrorism in East Africa

Pflanz, Mike, The Christian Science Monitor

Pentagon and congressional officials who toured a Kenyan medical laboratory are concerned that terrorist groups could get their hands on disease samples stored there.

On one side of the 7-foot brick wall, topped with rusting barbed wire and a four-strand electric fence, lies Africa's largest slum - a barely policed square mile of tin-roofed shacks that is home to 700,000 people.

On the other is Kenya's premier medical research laboratory, where samples of diseases considered among the biggest threats to humanity - including plague, anthrax, and Ebola - are studied and stored.

But not stored safely enough, according to a team of senior Pentagon and congressional officials who visited the facility Friday during an East Africa tour focused on the increasing threat of bioterrorism.

Defense analysts are concerned that security in the region's laboratories is too weak to withstand the threat from regional terror groups, including Al Qaeda, which are hunting for ingredients for biological weapons.

It's a "potentially disastrous predicament," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the ranking minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who led the delegation.

He should know. Senator Lugar, along with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, spearheaded US-funded efforts to find and destroy or decommission nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991.

There, he said in an interview with the Monitor, "We saw the production of biological weapons, we saw how pathogens were developed into ways that could kill tens of millions of people."

Why East Africa has become a focus

East Africa was high on the list for the post-Soviet focus of the Nunn-Lugar Program "because of the nexus between active terrorist groups, ungoverned spaces, and human and animal health laboratories working on endemic diseases, some of which are rare and exotic," said Andy Weber, assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, who was part of the US delegation that visited Uganda and Burundi en route to Kenya.

"We want to make sure that the pathogens that could be used by used terrorists are better secured and that there's an enhanced capability to monitor infectious disease outbreaks," added Mr. Weber.

But scientists caution that medical laboratories aren't the only sources of raw material for potential bioterrorists.

These diseases are already prevalent in the region - that's why they are being studied, points out Gigi Kwik Gronvall, senior associate at the UPMC Centre for Biosecurity in Pittsburgh, Pa.

"You shouldn't make it easy to find this stuff, but if you really want it, there are plenty of places to get it," she says, cautioning that it also takes some expertise to use disease samples as a tool to harm others.

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