Germ Wars: Beset by Controversy, the U.S. Military Is Using Genetic Engineering to Design Defenses against Biological Weapons

Article excerpt


In 17 years as an Army virologist at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., Neil Levitt found his work a risky business. On several occasions, he says, his supervisors issued him a gas mask to screen out toxic fumes emitted by a faulty ventilation system. In another incident, he recalls, a malfunctioning exhaust hood blew radioactive iodine onto his face. And once he discovered that several liters of a debilitating virus had inexplicably disappeared from a lab freezer.

Levitt, who worked for the Department of Defense's Biological Defense Research Program (BDRP), says he repeatedly asked officials overseeing his work to investigate the safety violations. But the Army denied some of his requests and ignored others, he says, leading him to resign in 1986. With the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental action organization, Levitt sued the Department of Defense (DOD) for violating national environmental law. In an out-of-court settlement of that suit, the DOD agreed to conduct environmental impact studies of its biological warfare research facilities (SN: 2/28/87, p. 132).

Levitt's lawsuit helped spotlight and expand a long-running but largely low-key controversy among some biological scientists over military germ research. While the upfront issues center on safety, larger questions of national defense and international relations are so intertwined in the dispute they seem almost inseparable.

Critics of the BDPR contend that "accidents waiting to happen" at DOD-funded laboratories require a revamping of the nation's biological warfare program. Inadequate safety enforcement risks the well-being of scientists in the labs and of residents living nearby, they argue. But behind the immediate personal fears and concerns for public health, they acknowledge, lie more complex issues of national security and international treaty.

In the preliminary draft of its environmental impact statement on the overall BDRP, forced by Levitt's suit and released in January 1988, the DOD says the program poses no significant risks to researchers or the publicf falls within the allowances of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention treaty; and represents a vital defense against potential biological warefare threats. While information concerning those threats is classified, Army science advisers stated in a report issued last year that "there is reason to believe that at least one nation, USSR, continued the development of an offensive biological weapons capability after signing the treaty."

The Biological Weapons Convention treaty, signed by 111 nations including the United States and the Soviet Union, prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons except for defensive purposes. However, it "does not preclude research into those offtensive aspects of biological agents necessary to determine what defensive measures are required," according to a 1969 statement issued by then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.

This exceptional troubles Levitt and others, who view offensive and defensive research as indistinguishable, says Jay Jacobson, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City: "It's like testing a vest against bullets. You first need to have the bullets." Intensifying complaints by critics in recent years has been the BDRP's use of genetic engineering -- a technology unanticipated by the drafters of the treaty. Molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, notes that scientists can now create microorganisms that can cause deadly diseases for which no cures exist. "Using gene cloning destroys the distinction between offense and defense, and gives a loophole in the 1972 treaty," Yamamoto says.

Senate subcommittee hearings this past summer evaluated the safety of biological can chemical warfare research facilities. …