While the hunt for "weapons of mass destruction" continues in
Iraq, the United States is moving rapidly to counter the possibility
of a biological attack here.
Congress and the President have added billions to the effort.
Federal agencies are redoubling their efforts. University labs are
hustling to win government research grants.
"We have moved with unprecedented speed and determination to
prepare for a bioterror attack or any other public-health crisis
,since the attacks of 2001," Health and Human Services Secretary
Tommy Thompson said recently. Secretary Thompson was announcing $350
million in federal grants to eight biodefense programs - most of
them university-based - around the country.
But that speed and determination is seen by some as a dangerous
rush that could in fact increase the risk of harm from biological
agents at home and undermine international law abroad. As a result,
critics in communities around the country are raising alarms, urging
local leaders to resist new biodefense labs and filing lawsuits.
In Boston, a coalition of community groups has just announced
plans to sue the Boston University Medical Center, which is bidding
for federal funds to build a biodefense lab. Concerned about health
and safety risks, opponents say BU's plan violates state
"We have repeatedly requested, and been denied, information and a
real dialogue about the threats posed by the lab," says Klare Allen,
an organizer with Alternatives for Community & Environment in
Boston. "Now we go to court to stop the project."
Citing US environmental law, community groups in California and
New Mexico are suing to stop the expansion of biodefense facilities
at federal- government laboratories in those states. The city
council in Davis, Calif., has gone on record as opposing efforts by
the University of California there to obtain federal funding for
Meanwhile, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston
has been fighting freedom-of-information requests for details of its
"What I'm trying to do here is set what could be become national
transparency standards in [federally funded] labs," says Edward
Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a biotechnology watchdog
organization in Austin. So far, the Texas Attorney General has sided
with those urging transparency.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports in its current
issue that 30 expanded or new biodefense facilities are being
considered nationwide with more than a half-dozen federal agencies,
plus universities around the country, involved. …