Weapons Labs Biological Research Raises Concerns

Article excerpt

Two U.S. nuclear weapons labs are opening biological research labs capable of studying more dangerous pathogens, raising concerns about the U.S. ability to meet demands for transparency in line with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

On Jan. 25, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory began operating a new Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) research lab. In addition, Los Alamos National Laboratory is scheduled to complete a federally mandated environmental study on a similar lab in August 2008, enabling the lab to begin operations soon thereafter, if the study findings are favorable.

Biosafety level classifications are established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to denote the level of danger associated with handling particular biological pathogens and proper procedures for working with them. The most dangerous agents, such as Ebola, are classified as BSL-4 in part because there is no known cure. A rating of BSL-3 indicates that the lab is equipped to handle infectious agents that may cause serious or fatal illness if inhaled. Agents rated at BSL-2 are not transmissible via inhalation and are often less hazardous in terms of the infections they may cause. For example, anthrax is normally a BSL-2 pathogen but necessitates a BSL-3 environment if it is in pure cultures or is aerosolized because it is then an inhalation threat.

Each national laboratory currently operates BSL-2 labs, and the new facilities mark the first time either laboratory has conducted or will conduct BSL-3 studies on-site.

These labs also will study select agents, which are pathogens that pose a serious threat to public health and safety and may be biological terrorism or biological weapons threats, including anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, plague, Rickettsia, tularemia, and valley fever. Due to the potential national security ramifications, labs conducting research on select agents are required by the CDC to implement physical and personnel security measures in addition to the normal BSL safeguards.

The labs are permitted to do some research on these agents under the BWC. The convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents; but it does allow researchers to work with limited quantities of certain types of dangerous agents solely for "prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes." For example, scientists might use an agent in creating vaccines or defenses against potential biological weapons.

It is difficult for outsiders to determine if a country is engaging in offensive or defensive biological weapons research, putting a premium on transparency and confidencebuilding measures to reassure the international community that a state is complying with its BWC obligations. Outside groups have raised concerns that locating the new BSL-3 labs in weapons facilities will make it difficult to convince other countries of the peaceful intent of U.S. research. They also worry that constructing these labs in such facilities may be undermining U.S. efforts to limit other countries' research into biological agents that could potentially be used as biological weapons.

Lynda Seaver, a spokesperson for the Lawrence Livermore lab, sought to assuage such concerns, telling Arms Control Today Feb. 12 that the United States is "a signatory to the Biowarfare Convention and does not conduct bioweapons research. …