Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Dangerous Proposition

(This is an article I just submitted to the current edition of "Eat the State". - MM)

Ever since the anthrax letters shortly after 911 bioterrorism has been a big cash cow in the U.S. This year alone $7.6 billion is budgeted for biodefense programs. When money like that is offered everyone wants a piece--the problem is that this particular funding isn't aimed at things that are significant health threats, and the funds always come with plenty of strings attached.

Take the University of Washington, for example. In December of last year the UW put in for a grant from the NIH for $25 million for a new "Regional Biocontainment Lab." UW reps say that they haven't had funds to build new labs since the '70s and therefore see this as an opportunity to get a brand spanking new, state-of-the-art facility. Ignoring the financial hurdles of where the rest of the $63 million will come from, let alone the operating costs (see: "The Bio-Offense Lab, ETS 01/19/05), this proposal has numerous serious problems that citizens should be very concerned about.

First off, the lab isn't really a "lab" in the sense of a single laboratory, it's a complex of 11 BSL-3 suites/labs with additional supporting labs and aerosolizing facilities (read dual-use). It's kind of like calling a mini-mall a store.

What's a BSL-3 (interchangeable with BL-3)? It's short for Bio Safety Level 3. Labs are rated on a scale of one to four, four being the highest level of containment where the nastiest, most virulent pathogens are handled. BSL-4 labs are where researchers experiment on diseases that have no cure.. BSL-3s are for nasties that have cures or treatments but could be devastating if they escaped from the lab.

So the UW is proposing to put a mini-mall housing a devastating array of death and disease on campus next to several major roadways and waterways in a densely populated neighborhood in the largest city in the state. With me so far? It gets worse.

The lab won't be controlled at the local level. Though the grant only covers 40 percent of the facility's cost, NIAID retains 100 percent control. UW says "we'll be in charge" but supporting documents say exactly the opposite.

According to the NIH Request for Application, the section "Cooperative Agreement Terms and Conditions of Award," item 1. b. states:

b. Awardees agree to participate in projects identified by the NIAID Biodefense Network that include common research interests and address a specific biodefense problem or threat.

and item 3. a.

3. Collaborative responsibilities:

a. The NIAID Biodefense Network will provide overall scientific coordination of the RBL Program

So the Bush Administration will be calling the shots (and let's not forget the biological treaties they've opted out of in the last four years).

Worried yet? Read on.

The three pathogens that are currently listed for study at this RBL are: tularemia, plague, and anthrax. The friendliest of these bugs--tularemia--infected three scientists at Boston University last summer, an incident the University of Boston chose to keep from the public for months, until newspaper reporters discovered the accident. None of these three accounts for more than a couple hundred deaths individually worldwide per year (vs. challenges like HIV, cancer, and malaria that each kill millions per year). Why, when recent reports indicate that the UW is coming up short of funds to continue cancer research, would that institution instead choose to fund and house facilities for pathogens that pose no significant current threat? Could it be tied to a shift in national funding priorities that have increased for these three proposed pathogens by over 1500 percent in the last few years, while HIV funding has been cut by 20 percent and malaria by 40 percent? (It's interesting to note that the three pathogens they'd be working on happen to have been the same that were shipped over to Iraq in the late 80's by the US later to be used as part of the justification for the current U.S. war with that country.)

What about accidents? UW proponents like to say they know of only one accident at a UW facility and know of no accidents where the public was exposed at a BSL-3 lab located at a university (this statement keeps changing slightly at each public forum). Easy to say when there are no national standards for reporting of accidents, thefts, and other incidents. Each state has it's own standards and, although the CDC has a list of 49 notifiable diseases, when it comes to a comprehensive national policy to track incidents, one simply doesn't exist. What does exist, however, are laws stemming from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 which prohibit public disclosure of theft or loss of bioterrorism agents (also known as "select agents"). So if the UW does discover some of the three pathogens missing, you will never know about it. In addition, when there is an accident, the only people who have to be notified are the City, County, and/or State Secretary of Health, and it's their call what to do from there. Once the UW makes that call they can roll over and go back to sleep.

Safety in terms of an intentional release is also a major concern. As angry citizens have stated during two of the only public hearings so far, the UW recently had one of it's facilities attacked and burnt to the ground by "eco-terrorists". Not a shining example of protecting public property. During these same meetings and in UW documents, proponents have emphasized that the location of the proposed lab complex will be literally across the street from UW Police Headquarters (it's touted as a primary benefit of that location). UW reps state that, unlike Seattle police who have many things to deal with, UW police would give the labs top priority. This begs the question of if the labs are not considered a high profile target of "terrorists" or disgruntled workers (as UW proponents state publicly) then why do these labs require an exclusive police force located literally across the street to protect this facility? If the labs are considered a high profile target, then why locate them in a densely populated sector of the largest city in the state?

These are only a few of the problems with the proposed lab complex at the UW.

Though the grant application states that the UW is required to do extensive outreach, so far the University has been attempting to fly underneath the public radar. It was only due to a member of the UW Senate Faculty speaking out that the proposal became public knowledge at all in January. The University's two public forums received little or no attention. The forums were also heavily controlled by University representatives (people were not allowed to clap, and UW reps had unlimited time to talk, while audience members' time was limited). Luckily, due to mounting public awareness and pressure, the UW has scheduled another public forum on Monday, April 11 from 4 - 6 PM at the HUB (Student Union Building) on the UW campus. This will be an excellent opportunity to be heard both inside at the forum itself as well as outside the HUB on campus grounds. People are encouraged to get there well ahead of the start time to help hand out flyers and participate in the only safe, open air experiment we call "democracy".


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