- Category: Occidentalogy
- Written by H Patricia Hynes, Truthout | News Analysis
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Is this federal research agenda "the biological equivalent of our misadventure in Iraq?" An expert on biological weapons at the University of California Davis, Mark Wheelis, contends that a "mass-casualty bioterrorist attack" is unlikely and that "plastering the country" with bioweapons laboratories leaves the country with a weakened public health research infrastructure and, thus, less secure. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) and many others have drawn the same conclusion. In May 2009, a study of security in DoD biodefense laboratories determined that the security systems of high biocontainment laboratories cannot protect against theft of bioweapons agents. Soon after, a Washington Post story revealed that an inventory of potentially deadly pathogens at the government's premier bioweapons research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, uncovered that more than 9,000 vials were missing. In testimony to a House Committee hearing on the proliferation of bioweapons laboratories, Nancy Kingsbury of the GAO revealed that expansion of bioweapons laboratories has been "so uncoordinated that no federal agency knows how many exist"; nor, she added, is there any sense among federal agencies of how many are needed, of their operational safety and of the cumulative risks they pose to the public. Keith Rhodes, the GAO's chief technologist, testified in the same October 2007 Congressional hearing "'we are at greater risk today' of an infectious disease epidemic because of the great increase in biolaboratories and the absence of oversight they receive." As many have gravely observed, the biodefense build-up means a huge number of people has access to extremely lethal material.
No Realistic Assessment of Need for Growth in Biodefense/Bioweapons Labs
Between 1900 and 2000, one person died in the United States from the deliberate use of a biological weapon (altogether six died by 2011, given the five anthrax deaths in 2001). This contrasts with more than 100,000 deaths per year from three public health causes, namely firearms, air pollution and food-borne disease. The other documented deliberate use of a pathogen involved the contamination of salad bar food with salmonella in 1984, which sickened 751 people. This contrasts with the annual incidence of comparable intestinal infections suffered by American tourists in Mexico, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, which must reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cases. Most historical threats of bioweapon use were hoaxes and most intended uses were personal, according to Milton Leitenberg of the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland. Contrary to popular and public official statements, weaponizing biological agents is extremely difficult, requiring immense research money, effort and expertise. Thus, the threat of biological terrorism with mass casualties - a threat that government has elevated without a basis in fact and without any rational threat assessment - confounds public awareness and siphons resources from true public health needs, such as gun control, reducing air pollution and research on TB resistance.
In March 2005, 750 top microbiologists, comprising the majority of US scientists studying bacterial and fungal diseases, wrote their major funding agency, the NIH, to claim that the agency's emphasis on biodefense research had diverted research away from germs that cause much more significant disease and death. Between 1998 and 2005, grants for researching potential bioweapons such as the bacteria that cause anthrax, plague and tularemia and viruses such as Ebola, Marburg and smallpox increased by 1,500 percent. During the same period, grants to support non-biodefense germs that cause major sickness and death (such as TB-resistant microbes and influenza) dropped 27 percent.
Lynn Klotz, a fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, calls for a combined risk assessment, which includes the risks of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and staph infections, a potential influenza epidemic and the risk of a bioweapons attack in order to apportion health resources where they are most needed. Such an assessment, he argues, will support prioritizing public health needs over the political hype that creates an "overblown fear of a big bioweapons attack."
Toothless Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
The 1925 Geneva Protocol, the oldest international agreement on biological weapons, prohibits the use of biological weapons in war by parties to the protocol. Many states have historically interpreted this prohibition to mean "offensive" or first use and have reserved the right to use bioweapons in self-defense.(4) The 1972 UN Biological and Toxin Weapons (BTWC) Convention prohibits all offensive biological weapons research, production and stockpiling programs, that is programs intended for first use of biological warfare and also proscribes the export or transfer of these weapons. However, signatory countries are not prohibited from developing defensive bioweapons for use in response to a bioweapon attack. The Convention also permits bioweapons-related research for medical and "other peaceful purposes." Thus, the weakness of this convention is that it allows bioweapons programs that may purport to be defensive or for medical and/or other peaceful purposes, but which can serve offensive purposes. Simply put, the convention does not protect against militarized biological and toxic weapons research, development and production.
A second central flaw of this convention is that, unlike the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention, it has no provision for a Verification Protocol(5) to assure compliance with the convention, nor does it provide for establishing an independent UN-based organization to monitor compliance. At most, signatory parties are expected to meet every five years to review voluntary implementation reports - with desultory results, thus far. Further, no United States administration has shown interest or leadership in achieving a strong Verification Protocol to the BWTC , a persistent policy neglect which increases the likelihood of a wider international resurgence of interest in biological weapons. Under the Bush administration, the United States resisted and derailed international NGO and signatory states' attempts to craft protocols for the BWTC that would provide for bioweapons' inspections and an organization responsible to do them. The US opposition to inspections stems from perceived risks to - the oft cited, yet never parsed - "national security interests." Of the US animus toward bioweapons' research inspection, Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, noted, "With biological weapons, the line between offense and defense is exceedingly difficult to draw ... Secrecy is the greatest enemy of safety." Given the massive US bioweapons research buildup, secrecy will raise the suspicion of other countries. "This bodes badly for the future of biological weapons control."
Environmental Justice: A Case Study of Community Activism against the BU Bioweapons Laboratory
"As a nation ... we are still in the grips of the military industrial complex for whom projects such as the Boston Biolab are as much meat and potatoes as any multi-billion dollar weapon system, no matter how dubious the need."
In February 2003, Boston University (BU) submitted a proposal to the NIH to construct a facility with the highest-risk level bioweapons research laboratory (called a BSL-4 laboratory) that would be sited within the BU Medical Center. The medical center is located in a dense, urban neighborhood with a majority of low-income and minority residents nearby. The process of proposal development, site selection and subsequent approval for funding took place in secret, without informing and consulting the local community. The site selected for the laboratory was pre-determined prior to BU undertaking a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandated environmental impact review and without involving the surrounding residential and working community - all in violation of federal policy. Nonetheless, NIH approved BU Medical Center's proposal for $128 million.
The fall out has been a classic struggle between an environmental justice community(6) - a community that is overburdened with health disparities, waste facilities, bus depots and that is home to the majority of social institutions, such as the county prison, homeless shelters, mental health facilities and a heroin detox center that other neighborhoods have rejected - and a powerful academic medical institution in a well-glued alliance with a federal agency and the majority of municipal and federal politicians. The community protest strategies included persistent community organizing spearheaded by Roxbury Safety Net, a premier community organizing coalition; public protest and strategic use of media; coalition building between the community and other nearby municipalities and interest groups; ongoing meetings with local politicians; enlisting numerous legal and science experts; and undertaking two community-initiated lawsuits.