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See Inside November 2008

Postal Anthrax Aftermath: Has Biodefense Spending Made Us Safer?

The Anthrax attacks in 2001 led to a massive increase in biodefense funding, which critics claim has done more harm than good


As the Federal Bureau of Investigation was about to move in, U.S. Army biodefense scientist Bruce Ivins committed suicide, thus possibly closing the chapter on the first—and so far only—fatal bioattack in U.S. history. The FBI alleges that Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Md., mailed anthrax-laden letters in September and October 2001 that killed five people. The incidents sparked a massive infusion of research funds to counter civilian bioterrorism, $41 billion spread over seven federal departments and agencies. Yet some observers argue that those funds have done little to guard against another bioterror incident, especially if the FBI is right about Ivins.

In an opinion that echoes those of several public health scientists, Keith Rhodes, the Government Accountability Office’s chief technologist, told a congressional hearing in October 2007 that “we are at greater risk today” than before of an infectious disease epidemic because of the great increase in biolaboratories and the absence of oversight they receive. In the past six years, says Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright, “the Bush administration has driven a 20- to 30-fold increase in the number of institutions and individuals with access to live, virulent bioweapons agents,” to about 400 institutions and 15,000 people. Every one of them, he claims, “is a potential source of an attack like the 2001 attack.” Even before the expansion, some 100 scientists had access to the anthrax strain Ivins managed. Moreover, huge growth “multiplies the chance of an accidental release,” argues Hillel Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

The hallmark of the stepped-up biode­fense spending has been the construction of dozens of new biolabs. The several being built to investigate diseases that have no known cure are called biosafety level four (BSL-4) labs, the highest level possible, and they require researchers to wear space suits and breathe piped-in air. “It’s definitely the case that when you have a rapid expansion of personnel, the mean experience drops dramatically, and the training level drops dramatically,” Ebright remarks.

Whether the extent of this expansion was necessary is unclear. The National Institutes of Health never assessed exactly how much new BSL-4 space it needed, according to Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity. By April 2004 the NIH had announced it would build 20 times as much space as it already had, and the Departments of Defense, Agriculture and Homeland Security were planning huge labs of their own. The late John La Montagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the time, stated that until a needs assessment was completed, “whether we need six times more, 12 times more or 100 times more, I can’t tell you.”

Scientists, security experts and legislators are now pondering various ideas to prevent lab-based terrorism. Some suggest 24/7 video surveillance, and the army is considering a “buddy system” so that no researcher can enter unaccompanied. A bill in Congress, the Select Agent Program and Biosafety Improvement Act of 2008, would mandate that a needs assessment for bioterror labs and manpower finally be conducted; that training for the thousands of new bioterror researchers be funded; and that the Select Agent Rule, the law that sets strict security requirements on bioweapons agents so they will not be lost or stolen, be reviewed and strengthened.

One security proposal that stems directly from the Ivins case is psychological screening, something no federal laws now require. (USAMRIID demands it only if researchers admit they have attempted suicide in the past.) C. J. Peters, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and a longtime USAMRIID researcher who knew Ivins, doubts the utility of such screening. “I don’t think it would have picked up Bruce,” he says. He describes Ivins as “kind of a weird guy” who came across to most colleagues as simply nerdy. In the years since the anthrax attacks, the addition of thousands of biolab workers has made separating quirky personalities from murderous ones that much harder.

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