WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- The Bush administration's $2.5 billion plan to build bioterrorism defense laboratories around the country to study high-risk diseases will mean deadly pathogens will be more widely dispersed than any time in United States history and thousands of additional people will have access to them, expanding the risks of leaks and domestic terror, according to critics of the program.
United Press International has identified roughly 20 existing labs and plans for approximately another 20 scattered across the country. Each new facility would have an average of 150 to 300 scientists and technicians, according to the Sunshine Project, a private study group in Austin, Texas. The numbers suggest, if all these labs were eventually built, up to 6,000 people might have new access to some of the most dangerous microbes on Earth, including hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and other bioterrorism agents including anthrax and tularemia.
Many of the proposed facilities would be on college campuses, in downtown urban settings or industrial parks where perimeter security will be harder to maintain than on a military base and where security restrictions could conflict with non-defense activities.
Dr. Richard Ebright, a microbiologist who directs a laboratory at the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., said he thinks the proliferation of labs increases the dangers of leaks and mishandling.
"Each new facility that maintains stocks of agents for biowarfare or bioterrorism becomes a potential source of deliberate or accidental releases and each additional person trained in handling those agents and possessing those agents becomes an additional possible point of deliberate or accidental release," Ebright told UPI.
The expansion is necessary, proponents of the labs argue, to support research to find vaccines and cures. Many in the science community, like biologist Steven Block of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., also said they favor removing restrictive regulations on who can handle and use biological agents so a wider range of scientists could apply their skills to finding countermeasures.
Easing current limits would not pose an increased risk, he told UPI, because the materials for bioterrorism are already "ubiquitous, easily hidden, and inexpensive, and the knowledge to deploy them is already in the public domain."
Bringing university researchers more fully into the effort and using the peer-review research process found in the National Institutes of Health community -- which is providing grants for many of the labs -- will improve the search for counters to bioterrorism, said Ron Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology.
Regarding any increased risk, Atlas told UPI, "We are not talking about training people on how to weaponize materials. What we are talking about is training people on how to find vaccines and therapeutics."
Along with Ebright, Nancy Connell of the Center for Biodefense, Ruy V. Lourenco Center for the Study of Emerging and Re-Emerging Pathogens, at the New Jersey Medical School in Piscataway, N.J., contested this view in a statement given to UPI.
"We believe that increasing the number of institutions and people with access to bioweapons agents will increase the likelihood of their release," they wrote. "We find the idea of a government-sponsored, large scale multi-site building boom frightening."
One of the problems, Ebright said, is the rules governing who can possess, use and transfer bioweapons agents require only minimal background screening involving analysis of immigration, military and criminal records.
The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, signed into law June 12, 2002, calls for the screening and registration of researchers working with bioterrorism agents. The requirement came after investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks revealed there little control on or tracking of which labs or scientists possessed what pathogens. The new law applies to all research conducted by government or non-government institutions with select agents.
Under the law, those doing background checks appear to be required only to do database searches. The act says the attorney general should conduct a search of "criminal, immigration, national security, and other electronic databases" to see if an individual is involved with terrorism or is an agent of another country. The person also cannot be under indictment for, or have been convicted of, a crime punishable by a year or more in prison. Nor can that person be a drug user, an illegal alien, a non-permanent resident alien from a country that supports terrorism, dishonorably discharged from the military or judged mentally defective. The same general procedure and standards apply to research organizations, companies and their owners.
Though individual contracts or institutions may impose tighter requirements, the interviews typical of high-level security clearances -- interviews that might reveal serious personal problems or dangerous tendencies -- do not appear to be required. Moreover, once a person or group is registered under the act, they can in turn submit a list of people to be cleared on an expedited basis. Those granted access can go for five years before their names are checked again.
The new rules do not persuade some critics who point to labs that supposedly are highly secure but still have a history of problems.
Richard Crosland, a bioterror researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases until he left the lab in the late 1990s, confirmed there were only cursory background checks conducted on employees at this high-security biodefense lab -- one of the few currently allowed to handle Ebola. He also told UPI there was no follow-up on the background checks during the years prior to the terrorist attacks.
Not only personnel were left unchecked at USAMRIID. Crosland and other former employees told UPI there was no review of what papers or materials entered or left the base in the recent years before the attacks. Indeed in January 2002, the Hartford Courant reported it obtained a 1992 internal investigation that reported some 26 samples of deadly pathogens, including anthrax, hantavirus, and Ebola were missing. The Army claimed in February 2002 it had found all but three of those specimens.
Similarly, during an investigation by UPI of recent labor problems and difficulties at a highly dangerous Department of Agriculture laboratory on Plum Island in Long Island Sound, UPI was told there had been numerous security breaches including a laptop computer with key ventilation plans that went missing.
For 45 years, Plum Island concentrated on livestock diseases for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducting research on such deadly illnesses as hoof-and-mouth and mad cow diseases, both of which could devastate the U.S. agricultural industry.
On June 1, the Department of Homeland Security took over Plum Island with the objective, congressional sources told UPI, of being able to direct some of the research. Residents nearby fear it will now be used to study pathogens such as anthrax that are deadly to humans.
Both Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., are planning to upgrade their laboratories to handle deadly biowarfare agents. These labs have been doing U.S. nuclear weapons research and development for nearly 50 years and both are supposed to maintain the tightest security protections.
Yet both labs have been the subject of major investigations of Chinese espionage in the past decade and only last month the security director at LLNL resigned after he was suspected of having sexual relations with a female Chinese agent. He has not been charged, but well-placed FBI sources said he is cooperating with the government.
There have been other recent security problems as well. On May 30, the director of the LLNL, Michael Anastasio, said in a news release: "I am stunned by the information I received last night regarding the loss of a security guard's access card. I have directed immediate and aggressive steps to ensure that access to Lab assets with this card be prohibited. While the individual who lost the card reported the incident in an appropriate and timely manner there is absolutely no excuse for the time delay in getting this information to senior management."
On Jan. 30, the Energy Department's inspector general released a report charging both fraud and whistle blower retaliation at the agency claiming there was $1 million in missing equipment. Other whistle blowers have said charges of plutonium theft and drug sales have been ignored. LLNL is currently managed by the University of California system, but the Energy Department has said it may ask for bids from other sources.
For the opponents of the laboratory building boom, the focus of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe into who sent anthrax letters 20 months ago has turned out, in their view, to be the best evidence of the need for caution in training more people to handle deadly pathogens.
Early in the investigation the FBI issued a profile of the kind of person investigators thought carried out the attack, based on a linguistic and behavioral analysis of the letters. They specifically suggested it was an adult male who "may work in a laboratory" and is "apparently comfortable working with extremely hazardous material." They also suggested that the killer "had access to a source of anthrax and possesses the knowledge and expertise to refine it."
The FBI also moved quickly past suggestions the source was a foreign government agent or Islamic radical group and focused its attention on a U.S. lab -- specifically the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md., some 45 miles from Washington.
Two developments supported the theory that the anthrax came from a U.S. lab. The strain of anthrax found in the letters was one widely used in labs both in the U.S and overseas. There was also, according to press reports, a program to weaponize anthrax at Dugway Proving Ground, another U.S. biodefense lab in Utah.
USAMRIID conducted research on anthrax though it claims never to have used the sort of weaponized anthrax found in the letters sent to Senators Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. Nonetheless the FBI has gone to great lengths to find evidence in the Frederick, Md. area.
The FBI recently drained a pond near Fort Detrick, a project started June 9 in hopes of finding evidence someone worked "under water" with the deadly spores to protect him or herself from inhaling them. Agents also have maintained an intense watch on a former USAMRIID employee.
Dr. Steven Hatfill, 49, from 1997 to 1999 a researcher at Fort Detrick, told UPI in an interview that the FBI has kept him under surveillance for more than a year and a half. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Hatfill was a "person of interest" in the case, but the Justice Department has never charged him with a crime. Hatfill told UPI that he had no access to anthrax.
Interestingly, Hatfill sought a clearance after he left USAMRIID and was turned down over a question about a clearance-related polygraph test. A Hatfill associate confirmed the incident but it was not clear if the test was too old when submitted or if there was some other problem.
(UPI photos WAX2003063001, WAX2003063002, WAX2003063003 and WAX2003063004 are available)