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Sam Yu/AP

Is Biodefense Killing Us?

August 12, 2008 12:49 PM
by Cara McDonough
Spending billions building biodefense labs like the new one controversially proposed for Mississippi may be risking our safety and health.

A New Lab, a Lot of Questions

Proponents say the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is needed to study some of the world’s “most virulent biological threats,” but the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to build the lab in Flora, Miss., has sparked controversy, reports Time magazine.

Government evaluations ranked Mississippi near the bottom on a list of potential locations for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is far away from similar, existing laboratories, but Time reports that the state is home to powerful U.S. lawmakers with strong influence over the agency.

“It is very suspicious,” said Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin, who led an effort to build the lab in Madison, the home of that institution's flagship campus. His state’s offer was one of nine sites rejected, even though the government scored it more highly than Mississippi’s. “We wondered how everybody else did. It’s interesting to know that we came out ahead of one that was short-listed.”

Mississippi ranked 14th out of 17 sites that were evaluated. The Associated Press reports that Mississippi’s state lawmakers include Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees DHS, and Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees DHS money.
“The disclosure is the latest example of what critics assert is the Bush administration’s politicizing of government decisions,” reports Time. But another question opponents are asking is whether the building of bioterror labs—regardless of their locations—does more harm than good.

Analysis: Are biodefense labs helpful or harmful?

Although many are concerned about the politicization of the location of the lab—which will study foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, and the Hendra and Nipah viruses—others wonder if the “government’s biodefense priorities are screwed up, massively,” Noah Shachtman writes on Wired’s national security blog, Danger Room.

Research into largely theoretical bio threats has sucked up money from tackling real killers, like tuberculosis,” writes Shachtman, adding that “the biggest threat may be from the proliferation of biodefense labs, packed with largely untrained staffs; an accident or a malicious insider was more likely to cause serious damage than nearly any bioterrorist.”
The recent case against Bruce Ivins, the alleged perpetrator in the 2001 anthrax attacks, is an extreme example of what such a “malicious insider” can do. Ivins was a prominent scientist who worked at the U.S. government’s biodefense research laboratories and assisted authorities in the anthrax investigation.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of a House panel that has investigated recent safety lapses at biolabs, said recently that he believes that all the money spent on biodefense in the United States in recent years—about $50 billion since 2001, according to the International Herald Tribune—has simply increased the number of people who have access to dangerous biological agents.

“We are putting America at more risk, not less risk,” Stupak said.

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