Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hot Labs: Maintaining our Bio-defence Posture for Future Warfare


"Working with nature's nastiest microbes offers a chance to help ensure public safety. Karen Kaplan details the profession's risks and rewards." Published in Nature 465,  386-387 (19 May 2010) | 10.1038/nj7296-386a

Author's note: Often times 'bio-defence' occurs in somewhat of a scientific vacuum. Bio-defence is not non-proliferation. Where non-proliferation is a policy endeavor aimed at reducing the risk of proliferation of biological weapons. Bio-defence is the science of biological security and physical protection of forces and civilians against weaponized biological pathogenic agents; be it deployed by terrorists or states. Bio-defence technologies range from prevention, detection, decontamination, to pre and post exposure medical counter-measures. A main objective is to ensure operational continuity in a contaminated environment during war. Generally, bio-defence research and development as well as related technology procurement are activities undertaken by government entities. For this reason most BSL4 level laboratories where a high proportion of of biological defence research is conducted are overseen by government agencies, at least in the United States and most western nations. Unfortunately, this relationship is often called into question by non-proliferation and arms control NGO's, academics and scientists alike, who fear offensive research may be undertaken.  The United States ended its offensive biological weapon research during the 1960's, has ratified the BTWC and does not conduct offensive biological weapon research.

Currently there are 13 operational or planned BSL-4 facilities within the United States. These are listed by the Federation of American Scientists on their website: which I've listed here. 

*Operates two facilities
Biosafety Level-4 Laboratories
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention*
Atlanta, GA
Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX
Center for Biotechnology and Drug Design
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA
Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research
San Antonio,TX
Rocky Mountain Laboratories Integrated Research Facility
National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Hamilton, MT
United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases
Department of Defense, Frederick, MD
Planned or Under Construction
Integrated Research Facility
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Ft. Detrick, MD
Galveston National Laboratory
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX
National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center
Department of Homeland Security
Frederick, MD
National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF)
Department of Homeland Security
Manhattan, KS
National Biocontainment Laboratory (NBL)
Boston University, Boston, MA
Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services
Department of General Services of the Commonwealth of Virginia
Richmond, VA

"Before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, policy-makers deemed biodefence an esoteric sub-specialty, its funding half-buried as an obscure line item in federal defence budgets. But following those strikes and the anthrax attacks a month later, the country started shoveling money into bioterrorism research. In 2001, for example, the annual budget for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland— the division of the National Institutes of Health that handles biodefence and infectious-disease research — was $42 million. By 2002, it had ballooned to $187 million, a 345% increase." See: Nature 465,  386-387 (19 May 2010) | 10.1038/nj7296-386a

Within bio-defence research, it's easy to forget why our BSL 4 laboratories are so vital to US and global public health security. Its been nearly thirteen years since the US anthrax postal attacks and since that time advances in the life sciences have provided rapid advances in potential biological weapon development, at the same time lowering the technical threshold or 'de-skilling' necessary to develop and deploy a BW. "Bodefence researchers routinely handle pathogens that kill or severely sicken people, animals and plants. Those defined by the US government as 'category A' bioterrorism threats include anthrax, botulism, bubonic plague, tularemia, smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg) and arenaviruses (Lassa and Machupo)."Nature 465,  386-387 (19 May 2010) | 10.1038/nj7296-386a

Maintaining bio-safety and bio-security at a BSL-4 level is exacting and although there has been public concern over possible accidental release, in my view, having worked with several labs, lab design today and the safety precautions which are taken is so high the risk is nominal. The benefits of bio-defence research far outweigh safety concerns and are critical to public health security. Ensuring bio-defence R&D in an era where we see an increase in offensive research in countries of concern: Iran, Syria, North Korea, is one of our main lines of defence and a critical aspect of U.S. national security.  
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