U.S. Biodefense Plans Worry Nonproliferation Advocates

By Yang, Jonathan | Arms Control Today, September 2003 | Go to article overview

U.S. Biodefense Plans Worry Nonproliferation Advocates


Yang, Jonathan, Arms Control Today


THE U.S. GOVERNMENT'S efforts to combat bioterrorism are sparking concerns over the dangers enhanced biodefense programs might pose to the nonproliferation regime. New biodefense plans drawn up in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks call for more than a sixfold boost in biodefense funding, with a sizeable portion of the funds going toward the construction of new biosafety level (BSL) 3 and 4 facilities, those capable of handling the most dangerous pathogens.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are plans to fund the construction of one or two new National Biocontainment Laboratories with BSL-4 containment capabilities and four to eight Regional Biocontainment Laboratories with BSL-3 containment capabilities, utilizing a portion of the roughly $1.5 billion budgeted to the NIH for biodefense research in fiscal year 2003. NIAID is evaluating proposals for these new laboratories and plans to announce the grant recipients in September 2003.

Proponents for the new laboratories contend that the increased research capabilities and capacity will help accelerate biodefense research. Opponents argue that the new biodefense laboratories might unintentionally worsen the threat to the United States. One concern is that, although the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) permits such research even as it outlaws offensive biological weapons, it is hard for outsiders to judge whether a country is in fact adhering to the BWC's restrictions. Opponents fret that, by coming close to this line, the United States risks undermining its attempts to limit or control other countries' research with materials that could be useful for biological weapons.

The Good and the Bad

Pathogens are categorized into one of four BSL classifications based on the dangers they pose and the availability of treatments or vaccines. Most pathogens that are considered bioterror threats, such as Ebola and smallpox, are categorized as BSL-3 or BSL-4 organisms, meaning they can only safely be worked on in a laboratory with at least the same BSL rating. BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities are specialized to allow scientists to conduct research on organisms within proper containment fields.

The U.S. government contends that new laboratories are needed to conduct additional research on dangerous pathogens. An NIH official claims that, of the existing five U.S. BSL-4 laboratories that are operational or near operational, only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, are capable of dealing with extensive experiments on highly dangerous agents.

Proponents say the new facilities would improve the development of treatments or vaccines before an attack occurs as well as the response to a biological attack. The process of developing and gaining approval for treatments and vaccines requires extensive laboratory research and testing that usually takes years. In the event of a biological attack, however, this process would be further burdened by the urgency for a therapy, given that the agent used might have a high morbidity and mortality rate and spread rapidly, affecting many people.

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