LENORE SKENAZY $1.5 billion for labs fuels our bioterror

Hey! How about this idea to make America safer? Let's open a whole bunch of new flight schools and invite hundreds of people to take lessons in advanced hijacking. What's that? Sounds like a bad idea? One that would actually make us less safe? OK then, tell me this: Why are we planning to open a whole bunch of new bioterrorism labs and invite hundreds of people to get their hands on the deadliest pathogens known to man?
That's exactly what the Bush administration is planning to do: Spend more than $1.5 billion to build at least seven big, new biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs to study and produce the world's worst germs.
To understand just how dangerous the germs in BSL-4 labs are, consider that anthrax requires only a BSL-2 lab. Same with the plague.
So maybe we need new high level labs to keep us safe from the worst of the worst? That's what the administration is arguing: We've got to study these germs before the terrorists do. But in fact, these labs actually would bring us closer to a biodisaster in two ways:
First of all, there's always the problem of accidents. Right now, there are only two government-run BSL-4 labs in America. That means very few places these horrible germs could accidentally escape from. Think that never happens? In April, a lab in Frederick, Md., accidentally shipped a vial of lethal anthrax to a children's hospital in Oakland. The lab workers thought the germs were dead. Oops.
Worldwide, adds Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright, there have been three BSL-4 accidents in the past few months, including a SARS release in Taiwan. Bottom line: The more bioweapons labs we build, the more chance that human errors and leaks will occur.
But perhaps even more troubling than the possibility of an accident is the possibility of a deliberate infiltration by terrorists.
"The more people who have access to the most dangerous pathogens, the greater the risk that one of them -- or more -- will engage in nefarious activities," says Jonathan Tucker, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan Monterey Institute in California. "As we've learned from (spies) Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames," says Tucker, "even people with the highest security can, in fact, be unreliable."
The opportunity for a terrorist to get his hands on these germs is much greater now that so many people have hurriedly been cleared to staff this weapons lab boom. Before 2001, says Ebright, there were only 500 to 1,000 people registered for bioweapons access. Today there are 11,000 -- and counting.
Single cell
This is disturbing because right now it is almost impossible for a rogue group to get experience handling the most obscure and deadly pathogens. The equipment is too expensive and advanced. But once a couple of terrorists get first-class, government-paid bioweapons training -- or once a terrorist group co-opts a couple of bioterror technicians -- it is only a matter of their sneaking out a single cell, says Ebright. And the absconding of a single cell, he adds, would be impossible to detect.
Would anyone really do this? Consider that the 2001 anthrax attacks used a strain traceable to a biodefense laboratory and was probably perpetrated by a biodefense worker.
So, in fact, far from creating security, a proliferation of BSL-4 labs will create a proliferation of deadly weapons along with plenty of opportunity for them to be released, accidentally or not.
Rather than sinking billions into this dubious proposition, it would make far more sense to spend our bioterror dollars securing the dozens of abandoned bioweapons labs around the world.
X Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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