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American fears rise along with 'hot lab' building boom

Friday, April 30, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- From Boston to Livermore, Calif., "hot labs" designed to combat bioterrorism and house the world's deadliest germs are being planned and constructed with a huge cash infusion from the federal government.

Supporters of the unprecedented building boom say the new or expanded high-containment labs -- there are least 18 -- are essential to national security in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

But as the labs rise on college campuses and government installations across the country, so do concerns about safety and security.

Neighbors fear that some frightening variant of Ebola virus, plague or other deadly disease could be loosed into their back yards, and are filing lawsuits and lobbying politicians to halt construction.

A growing number of scientists complain that the $6 billion earmarked by Congress for fighting bioterrorism is excessive, is being doled out with little oversight and is detracting from efforts to combat problems that are much more deadly -- for example, AIDS and malaria, which are already killing millions of people.

Others worry that the buildup actually threatens national security, by arming more people with the know-how to construct bioweapons, and perhaps even sparking a new biological arms race since two of the hot labs are to be built inside national weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, N.M.

Universities in Boston, Pittsburgh, Texas and elsewhere have already won grants to build labs, some in urban neighborhoods.

In Boston, activists are trying to halt construction of a $168 million lab at Boston University, to be built in the city's south end. They fear something akin to what health inspectors suspect occurred recently in China: that SARS escaped from a Beijing laboratory and made its way into the Chinese heartland, contributing to the latest eruption of the sometimes fatal disease.

"It doesn't belong there. The health and safety risks outweigh the benefits," said Kyle Loring, a lawyer with Roxbury, Mass.-based Alternatives for Community and Environment.

Boston's mayor and Massachusetts' governor are convinced the lab will be well protected, and provide a boost to the local economy. Federal officials insist that no deadly germs have ever escaped from U.S. laboratories, and say the planned facilities will be even more secure than their predecessors.

Following such objections, the Bush administration on Wednesday issued a directive that addressed oversight and coordination.

"Under the president's new national biodefense directive, all of our bioterrorism projects and programs will fall under a coordinated and focused strategic plan that will help maximize our resources, ensure a common unified effort across all federal agencies and address any deficiency that we discover," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said at a news conference Wednesday.

But even some backers of the construction are concerned that the bioweapons defense program, while awash in cash, is lacking in direction and coordination.

"We do need these labs," said Ken Alibek, a former top scientist in the Soviet biological weapons program who defected to the United States in 1992. "But I've never seen any well-defined plan of what exactly we need, how many labs are necessary and what they should be designed to do."

The government agencies and colleges involved defend their projects as necessary to close the gaps in national defense exposed by the anthrax attacks in 2002. They say more sophisticated labs are needed to combat a range of potential bioweapons -- exotic diseases, for example, and genetically engineered bugs designed to evade detection and that can't be treated by any existing vaccines.

"We do not have the safe and effective vaccines and drugs we need," said Rona Hirschberg of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the NIH branch driving much of the lab construction. Hirschberg said creating vaccines, antidotes and rapid diagnostic tools are high national security priorities.

However, no one inside or outside of government is sure exactly how many labs are already working with biological material that could be rendered into deadly weapons if obtained by terrorists. Estimates range in the hundreds, even as biotech companies prepare to compete for a new round of federal biodefense grants.

The departments of defense, health, homeland security and energy, meanwhile, all have separate plans to fund, expand or build hot labs.

"It has gone wild," said Barbara Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists, which is working to control the spread of bioweapons. "There's a frenzy to get federal funds to get these built without having any real plan with what to do with them."

Marylia Kelley, who heads Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-area group suing the Department of Energy to stop the lab construction, isn't just concerned about local safety but also about perceptions abroad.

She says "putting a lab like this in a highly secured weapons facility will undoubtedly raise suspicions about its intentions."

But a Livermore lab spokesman said researchers are simply working with small amounts of biological agents to develop better detection technologies.

"We do not in any way, shape or form conduct bioweapons research," spokesman Steve Wampler said.

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On the Net:

NIAID: http://www2.niaid.nih.gov/biodefense/

Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/index.jsp

Tri-Valley CAREs: http://www.trivalleycares.org/


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