United States Of Common Sense

Seeds of Our Destruction

The explosion in bio labs cultivating dangerous pathogens.

In 2001 the United States suffered a series of anthrax attacks. The attacks took place in two waves. The first wave consisted of a total of five letters, all mailed from Trenton, New Jersey on September 18, 2001. These letters were sent to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the New York Post and American Media, Inc. The second set of letters, also sent from Trenton, New Jersey, was mailed on October 9, 2001. These went to the offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Ultimately, five people died of anthrax contracted from exposure to the substance in these envelopes. Seventeen other individuals were also infected but recovered.

Eventually, the FBI's investigation centered on a researcher at Fort Detrick, Maryland named Bruce Edward Ivins. Ivins was employed in the nation's premier biodefense facility and had direct access to anthrax spores. With the FBI apparently closing in and about to formally charge him, Ivins chose to opt out. He committed suicide on July 27, 2008 by taking an overdose of a common painkiller.

There has been a lot of controversy regarding the FBI investigation and Ivins' guilt. Having read the case file, I personally think the conclusion was spot on. Ivins had the expertise. He had the access. He was clearly mentally unbalanced and effectively coming apart at the seams. The most lethal biological terrorist attack in our history was carried out by one of our own scientists employed inside one of our most sensitive labs.

And, so, in the wake of the attacks, we did the inevitable. To protect ourselves against future attacks and to ensure that no opportunity to combine homeland security with corporate welfare went unrealized, we decided to dramatically expand the number of laboratories inside the United States working with dangerous pathogens like anthrax.

Since 2001 over 20 billion dollars has been spent on biodefense programs. The budget for bio defense research at the National Institutes of Health alone in 2008 was 1.6 billion dollars. The number of laboratories working with dangerous pathogens has exploded. By the time current construction is complete, there will be ten times as much lab space dedicated to this work as there was in 2001.

In 2001, there were a total of five Biosafety Level 4 (BSL 4) labs in the United States. Those are the labs, which are approved to handle the most dangerous pathogens on earth. There are now, or soon will be when construction is complete, fifteen.

No one, including the U.S. Government has any clear idea how many Biosafety Level 3 (BSL 3) labs there are, but the number is close to 1500. At least 15,000 technicians in the United States are working in BSL 4 and BSL 3 labs today. Since most of this growth in labs has happened in the last few years, we have the additional factor to contend with that a huge percentage of these lab technicians are recently hired and relatively inexperienced.

While the growth in this area has been fueled by homeland security concerns, that does not translate into the Department of Homeland Security having control over what is happening. There are at least 12 different federal agencies with jurisdiction in this area. No single one of them is in charge of safety or security standards.

To understand the full import of what this all means, it helps to take a moment and look closely at exactly what BSL 4 and BSL 3 labs are and what kind of pathogens they handle.

According to the National Institutes of Health, BSL4 labs are used to study agents that pose a high risk of life threatening disease for which no vaccine or therapy is available. That means we cannot cure them. If you contract such a disease you are effectively already dead.

Lab personnel in these facilities are required to wear full body, air supplied suits and to shower when exiting the facility. The labs incorporate all BSL 3 features and are supposed to occupy safe, isolated zones within a larger building. When you think of the popular image of a biological research facility as portrayed on television or in the movies with people walking around in what look like spacesuits, it is a BSL 4 facility you are visualizing.

BSL 4 labs study diseases like the Ebola virus, the Marburg virus, hemorrhagic fever and Lassa fever. These are the most lethal killers on the planet. People infected with Ebola virus, as an example, have sudden fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, limited kidney and liver functions, and both internal and external bleeding. Death rates for populations infected with Ebola range are close to ninety percent.

Given the lethality of the agents studied at BSL 4 labs you could probably be excused for thinking that such facilities would be hidden away in remote locations in the mountains, surrounded by impenetrable defenses and far from any significant human populations. You would, of course, be mistaken. Of the original five BSL 4 labs, one was in Atlanta, another in San Antonio and one in Frederick, Maryland only about an hour from DC. The distribution of the additional BSL 4 labs under construction is similar. One of the most controversial is in downtown Boston. Another is in Kansas in the heart of tornado alley.

BSL3 labs are used to study agents that can be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infection. Researchers perform lab work in a gas tight enclosure. Other safety features include clothing decontamination, sealed windows, and specialized ventilation systems. These are much less secure facilities than BSL 4 labs.

Surprisingly, though, many of the diseases, which the public knows best and fears the most are actually allowed to be studied in BSL 3 labs. Anthrax, for example, is held, studied and grown in BSL 3 labs all over the country. Other pathogens that are worked with in BSL facilities include West Nile virus, encephalitis, SARS, salmonella and yellow fever.

Following the revelations regarding Ivins and his connection to the anthrax attacks, Fort Detrick undertook a series of actions to attempt to get a handle on activities at the facility concerning dangerous pathogens. One of the actions taken was a comprehensive review of what bioagents existed at the facility.
The inventory of items on hand at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases identified 9,220 samples that hadn't been included in the master database. These included dangerous pathogen such as the Ebola virus, anthrax bacteria and botulinum toxin. There were also a number of less lethal agents like Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus and the bacterium that causes tularemia. Some of these samples dated back as far as the Korean War.

In 2003, a professor at Texas Tech University was found guilty of 47 out of 69 charges, which were filed against him by federal prosecutors. This case began as the result of the disappearance of 30 vials of plague bacteria from the lab in which the professor was working. While the researcher in question, Thomas C. Butler, chief of the infectious diseases division at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, was acquitted of some of the most serious charges against him the exact disposition of these 30 containers of plague bacteria was never conclusively determined. In the best case, they were destroyed, and the lab's records were never updated. In the worst case, they were taken out of the lab and remain unaccounted for.

In the course of this investigation and trial, it was, in fact, determined that Dr. Butler had shipped samples of the plague out of the country to Africa. Dr. Butler indicated that these shipments were sent to research associates, but there was apparently no question that he mailed the samples without the appropriate approvals and that he labeled the Federal Express packages merely as ''laboratory materials.''

In April 2009, three vials of equine encephalitis were reported missing from Fort Detrick. An investigation was initiated but the state of record keeping at the lab made it unlikely that the fate of the vials would ever be determined. It was possible that they had been destroyed and records not updated. It was also possible that they had been carried out of the lab. An Army official commenting on the incident said, "We'll probably never know exactly what happened. It could be the freezer malfunction. It could be they never existed."

In February 2009, a Newark, New Jersey lab reported that it lost two dead mice infected with the plague. In August 2007, a lab worker at St. Louis University was stuck with a needle contaminated with monkeypox, a disease similar to smallpox.
In June 2007, an hour long power outage at the CDC's newest top security lab outside of Atlanta raised serious questions about the safety of the agents inside the facility, after the backup generator failed to deploy. A lab of this type relies on maintaining negative pressure within the research spaces to ensure that microorganisms do not escape through air ventilation systems. When the electric power is out the systems that maintain negative pressure do not work, and that means that one of the primary mechanisms for preventing the escape of dangerous pathogens is offline.
In May 2007, a lab employee at the University of Kentucky was exposed to plague bacteria after a protective bag leaked.
In Newark, New Jersey in 2005 mice infected with the plague escaped into the city from a lab. They were never recovered. This was the same facility from which mice again disappeared in 2009.
At the University of Wisconsin in 2005 and 2006, researchers conducted work on the Ebola virus without authorization from appropriate authorities.
At the University of Chicago in 2005, a lab worker stabbed himself with a needle contaminated with anthrax.
A Russian researcher died in 2004 after being exposed to Ebola in a lab.
In 2004, a researcher at the Medical University of Ohio was infected with Valley Fever. The following summer other workers were exposed to the same agent.
In 2004, live anthrax was accidentally sent to children's hospital in Oakland, California.
Earlier this year, the BSL4 Galveston lab reported that it could not find an entire vial of the deadly Guanarito virus, for which there is no known cure.
Problems with bio labs are not confined to the United States. In August of 2007, contamination of footandmouth disease was discovered at several farms near Pirbright, a top security lab in the United Kingdom working with the live virus which causes the disease. When investigators began to dig into the case they found that the animals in question were infected with precisely the same strain of the disease, which was being worked with at Pirbright. Subsequently, they were able to identify leaking pipes and poor drainage at the lab and determine that it was likely that the contaminants got into the farm soil through this route. Six hundred cattle had to be slaughtered to prevent further dissemination of the disease. The lab in question was a private facility, which worked with the virus in order to create vaccines, exactly the same type of work done by many of the BSL3 labs in the United States.

As bad as internal procedures have been and as chaotic as oversight appears to be, the physical security of the labs springing up all around the country does not appear to be much better.

In September 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), issued a report on physical security at the nations existing Biosafety Level 4 laboratories. Two of the five labs then existing and in operation were found to be seriously deficient. These were the Georgia State University's Viral Immunology Center and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas.

The Viral Immunology Center, which is located right in the heart of downtown Atlanta, and which is one of two facilities on the planet where smallpox is known to be stored, was found to lack:
  • an outer perimeter boundary
  • blast standoff
  • barriers to prevent vehicles from approaching the lab
  • loading docks located outside the footprint of the main building
  • a command and control center
  • CCTV monitored in a command and control center
  • an active intrusion detection system

  • camera coverage of the full exterior of the building
  • a visible armed guard presence
  • x-ray machines in operation at entrances
  • vehicle screening
  • visitor screening

In short, at this, one of the five most sensitive laboratories in the country, approved to work with the most virulent diseases, known to man, there was no meaningful physical security of any kind. This was not thirty years ago. This was late 2008 in the middle of a major American city.

The situation at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research was, if anything, worse. There was no armed guard presence. There were no roving patrols. The GAO even found that it was possible to gain direct access to the lab by simple climbing in an outside window. One offsite portion of the lab was not even monitored by the laboratory's security force at all. Responsibility for that location had been turned over to a private alarm monitoring company.

Earlier this year, the GAO issued an update noting that none of the concerns they had identified in their previous report had been addressed. The security situation remained grave, and there was still no single federal entity in charge.

Based on fears that we might be attacked by terrorists using biological agents, we have, at huge expense, opened vast numbers of new laboratories dedicated to the propagation of exactly those deadly microorganisms about which we were so concerned. And, then, having built the labs, and grown the bugs, we have chosen to simply neglect imposing any kind of meaningful requirements regarding physical security.

The Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism began its 2008 report as follows, "The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013. The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon. The Commission believes that the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospect of a bioterror attack."

Amen. We have neglected this issue for too long. We need to significantly reduce the number of labs working with dangerous pathogens. We need to put in place real security and control at those facilities, which do such work. And we need to designate a single federal entity to ride herd over the situation. If we do, we may avoid catastrophe. If we do not, we may well find that we have cultivated the seeds of our own destruction.

Portions of the foregoing article were drawn from Charles S. Faddis' book on homeland security, Willful Neglect.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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