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Wednesday, August 30, 2006  
Locals Rally to Combat biodefense labs

By: Erika Check
Published In: Nature, the international journal of science

Nature, the international journal of science

30 August 2006

Locals rally to combat biodefence labs

Protests mount against classified research centres.

As the US government picks up the pace of building high-security

biodefence laboratories, community groups and watchdogs are ramping

up their protests.

The latest clash centres on Fort Detrick, an army facility in

Frederick, Maryland, that has long been home to biosecurity labs. The

government is planning to overhaul the existing facilities and build

a new biodefence research complex. Construction has already begun on

one component: the Department of Homeland Security's National

Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC). This is

slated for completion in June 2008.

But critics want to halt work on this facility and others in the

works nationwide. On 30 August, opponents were scheduled to air their

concerns at a public meeting in Frederick about Fort Detrick's


"From almost any way of looking at it, this makes absolutely no

sense," says Barry Kissin, a lawyer and congressional candidate from

Frederick, about the planned facility. "This does the opposite of

provide for our security, at great expense and great hazard."

Although local communities often protest about biodefence labs in

their midst, the $105-million NBACC does stand out. Plans

inadvertently posted on the Internet suggest that personnel there

will conduct exercises known as 'red-teaming'. These would involve

creating and testing biothreat agents thought to belong to enemy

arsenals. The Department of Homeland Security is also attempting to

classify the facility, which means activities there would be

off-limits to public enquiry.

The NBACC will include labs operating at the highest biosecurity

level - biosafety level 4 - which handle the deadliest pathogens.

This would be in addition to several biosafety level 4 facilities

already in existence at the Fort Detrick campus. But critics say more

labs will increase the threat to the surrounding community - they say

pathogens could escape or be removed surreptitiously from the labs.

Anthrax that was used in the unsolved mail attacks of late 2001, for

instance, is thought to have come from a research lab.

Opponents also charge that the facility runs the risk of spurring

other countries to ramp up biowarfare activities: unless inspectors

are allowed to investigate the site, some might suspect the United

States of creating offensive weapons.

"It's a really big mistake to classify the entire NBACC facility,"

says Alan Pearson, an expert on biological weapons at the Center for

Arms Control and Non-proliferation in Washington DC. "Clearly there

are going to be some aspects of the work that ought to be classified,

but those ought to be minimal. Otherwise you start generating

suspicions and, frankly, generating excuses for other countries."

The department says that classification is necessary to prevent other

nations from obtaining information about US weak points. "Providing a

secure environment for the handling of sensitive information in this

way makes sense, and will not allow our enemies to gain the advantage

should vulnerabilities be revealed," says Christopher Kelly, a

spokesman for the department.

Critics are also worried that the Department of Homeland Security

could attempt to classify another project it has in the works: a

$450-million complex of high-biosecurity labs and testing grounds

called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The department is

holding a nationwide competition to determine where the lab will be

located; 12 sites remain in the running. Kelly says the department

has no plans to classify the complex in question. But one site that

has made the shortlist is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

in California - which is already a classified facility.

"How will the United States assure the rest of the world that the

research is completely defensive if it's being conducted at a

classified nuclear-weapons laboratory?" asks Marylia Kelley,

executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-based group that

monitors the national laboratory.

NBACC and the bio-agro facility are just part of a recent boom in

biodefence spending in the United States. The federal government has

spent $36 billion to combat bioterrorism since the terrorist attacks

of 11 September 2001, according to an analysis by the Center for Arms

Control and Non-proliferation. Three additional biosafety level 4

labs are in the works, including one at Boston University in

Massachusetts that has been heavily protested. Fourteen new

biosecurity level 2 and 3 labs are also planned.

Pearson argues that the country should spend more on working to

prevent bioterrorism in the first place, by strengthening the United

Nations' biological and chemical weapons conventions, and improving

supervision of its own research. "It wouldn't take much money to

strengthen prevention," he says, "and it would do a lot more to keep

us safe."

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