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News :: War and Militarism
NIH Report on BU Bioterror Lab Biased, Independent Study Needed
08 Oct 2007
Risk assessments of the construction site for Boston University’s biodefense laboratory are subject to partisan politics, arbitrary to the project’s funding and should be strictly reviewed. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), as the main funding organization, has high stakes in the success of the biolab and is now playing the largest role in determining the safety of building the lab in a high-density population area of Boston.
Since Boston University was awarded a multi-million grant to build a BSL-4 lab in Boston, efforts by community members to stop the lab’s construction have been thwarted by the same governmental body, the NIH, appointed to develop Bush’s Project BioShield. The $6 billion, 10-year effort is described as a national effort “to protect the American public from various weapons of bioterrorism” through the research of some of the deadliest diseases known to humankind such as ebola, small pox, and the plague.

In August 2006, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants ordered further environmental review of the lab and a public hearing but did not block its construction. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is currently reviewing the case. Construction of the lab is said to be 80% complete.

A second Risk Assessment and Site Suitability Analysis--released in late August during a public hearing led by the NIH--was heralded as another victory by BU officials. It further determined that biodefense research at the site poses “no threat” to the residents in close proximity to the lab. It argued that it would be more dangerous if built in a secluded area. Attendees of the hearing, however, protested bitterly that NIH only reviewed mosquito-borne diseases as opposed to those easily spread from person to person.

The question remains if NIH and Boston University, as partners in this project, can determine without bias the safety of this project.


The shortest route to determine a “worst-case-scenario” if an airborne disease for which there’s no known cure is released in Boston, is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its website includes several models in case of a bioterror attack. A few hours on the site are enough to allow anyone to find some frightening statistics.

In “Modeling Potential Responses to Smallpox as a Bioterrorist Weapon” researchers found a direct link between community size and spread of some infectious diseases and indicated that the larger the community, the higher the rate of transmission. High-density populations are to no surprise more susceptible to the quick, efficient spread of the agent.

“For a given number of persons initially infected, doubling the number infected per infectious person causes a massive increase (greater than 2 orders of magnitude),” reads the report. That is, for 10 people initially infected with smallpox, 64 more will get sick in 30 days; for 100 people initially infected, 6,387 will end up sick at the end of 30 days. The number shoots up to 447,794 in 90 days. At that level, the scientists report, “the level of quarantine needed, however, may prove impossible to enforce” but is strongly recommended. And this is for a disease for which a limited stockpile of vaccines currently exists.

The CDC recommends a preparedness and response plan that includes considerations for the poverty and education level of the population, access to transportation, availability of health facilities and personnel, etc. For diseases such as the ones to be studied at the BU lab, an accidental release would require rapid quarantine and isolation to contain the spread of illness.

Only a short window of opportunity will exist between the time the first cases are identified and a second wave of the population becomes ill, CDC further reports. During that brief period, public health officials will need to determine that infection has occurred, identify the organism, and prevent more casualties through prevention strategies (massive vaccination or preventative treatment).

In “Aftermath of a Hypothetical Smallpox Disaster” Jason Bardi from Johns Hopkins University writes how preparedness should include considerations on how to control the message to avoid mass hysteria. “Regardless of how information is disseminated, the message must be carefully considered. If the flulike symptoms of smallpox are identified on the evening news, a flood of noninfected persons with stuffy noses or headaches could swell emergency rooms across the state. Other reports, such as upcoming quarantine efforts, may also spread panic and should be handled carefully,” he writes.

In short, the government might consider not telling the truth to avoid spreading panic among the community, which in turn might make it more difficult to identify further infections.


Threatening bioterrorism case scenarios allowed the Bush administration to push Project Bioshield by increasing the number of biosafety labs across the country. However, many scientists argue such labs themselves already pose a threat.

In “The Pitfalls of Bioterrorism Preparedness” published in the American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Hillel W. Cohen argues that the present expansion of bioterrorism preparedness programs will continue to squander health resources and increase the dangers of accidental or purposeful release of dangerous pathogens. “The resultant illnesses and deaths might not have occurred if those laboratories were not in operation,” writes Cohen, “[US biodefense] such programs may result in dangerous materials being more readily available, thus undermining the Biologic and Toxin Weapons Convention.”

On October 2nd, the Associated Press disclosed a confidential report that showed that American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work. Labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007, nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

More than 25,000 people live within one mile of the BU biolab location and more than one million people live within ten miles.

Among most recent accidents, three scientists working in at Boston University’s BSL2 laboratory were contaminated with tularemia while studying the germ in 2004. The scientists in charge failed to report the contamination to the Department of Health for as many as 12 days. Although BU officials claimed the infected themselves scientists were to blame for violating safety procedures, months later the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA fined Boston University $8,100 for three serious violations (with a substantial probability of death) on substandard safety and protective equipment.

On October 4, 2007, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing entitled “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States” to gauge the safety of “biosafety” labs.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who led the hearing, noted that “No one in the federal government even knows for sure how many of these labs there are in the U.S., much less what research they are doing, or whether they are safe and secure.” The secrecy of such labs on the kind of research conducted (whether it’s for biosafety, biodefense, or bioweapons), has many community members worried. Yet much of the money—in hundreds of millions of dollars—continue to be awarded to both universities and biotech and pharmaceutical corporations in the quest for deadly pathogen research.


On February 3, 2003, President Bush unveiled his bioterrorism defense plan which greatly expanded the resources of the National Institutes of Health. “Man's efforts to use diseases as weapons of war and terror,” he said in a speech, “Has put NIH squarely in the midst of our war to defend America and to defeat international terrorism.” Funding for the agency consequently doubled over the past five years, from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $28 billion until 2005, with a new request pending in Congress for a 6.7 percent increase in 2008.

He thanked NIH’s Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni for his fine leadership. “You know, when I picked him, I thought he would do okay--he's far exceeded my expectations,” added Bush. He then proceeded to congratulate Anthony S. Fauci, as director of National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (a branch of NIH), for his dedication and commitment. “Tony Fauci, of course, I've known him for a long time,” he said.

Why would Bush be admired at Zerhouni’s performance as director of NIH? Perhaps it’s because he became a White House medical consultant in 1985 after he worked on President Ronald Reagan's colon polyps and since then has seen his career balloon. The Scientific American characterized him with the name “biomedical politician” in 2003. Zerhouni indeed exceeded Bush’s expectations by, among other things, easing a prohibition on owning stock in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for thousands of government employees while limiting payoffs in consulting gigs. The move was due to a Congressional hearing in 2004 that found that as many as 600 researchers had received payments and stock options in hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

In April 2003, NIH went through another kind of investigation by the House Appropriations Committee, worried that the agency was granting lots of money for bioterrorism research, but was not studying how to manage panic-stricken populations following a bioterror attack. “Throughout the drama, NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni makes calm, measured responses, at times calling on Anthony S. Fauci, head of the NIH's antibioterrorism efforts, for his input,” reads the article on Scientific American about the investigation.

“Tony” Fauci, as President Bush called him with endearment during his bioshield speech, is a long-time friend of the Bush family. Tony became friends with Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, when the later was Reagan’s vice president in the 1980s. “The vice president, accompanied by Barbara Bush, spent a half day with Tony, visiting patients, seeing laboratories, and gaining new insight into the tragedy, scope, and complexity of the HIV pandemic. The vice president corresponded with Tony, invited him to dinners and meetings, and they became friends,” reads a biography on the Lasker Foundation’s website that awarded Tony with a public service award. He is also well-known for his work in designing the current President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Tony Fauci personally came in defense of Boston University’s BSL-4 biolab, particularly during the tularemia incident that resulted in three sick scientists in 2004. The Boston Globe reported Fauci’s endorsement as one from a “key U.S. figures” and quoted him saying that "Things like that happen when people are not trained well.” Dr. Mark S. Klempner, Principal Investigator at BU’s biolab, welcomed Fauci's endorsement and later welcomed NIH’s decision to give BU the “green light” saying the lab’s location in the South End posed no threat to its population.

But it’s not the first time that these two scientists meet. Klempner and Fauci worked together at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) when Klempner was a post-doctoral fellow at the agency earlier in his career. Klempner was later awarded $4.2 million as principal investigator of Post-Lyme Disease Syndrome Studies in 1996, when Tony Fauci was NIAID’s director.

"We maintain that no matter where these labs are put, they are safe to the population, and that is their history," Klempner was quoted on The Washington Post in January of 2005. But when one looks into the biolab history books, infectious outbreaks point directly to research biolabs and intentional releases by governmental institutions.

On April 2, 1979, there was an unusual anthrax outbreak which affected 94 people and killed at least 64 of them in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk (now called Ekaterinburg). The Soviet government admitted that the anthrax outbreak was the result of military activity at the facility.

The 1998 South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the apartheid regime in the 1980s released cholera strains into water sources of certain South African villages and provided anthrax and cholera to the government troops of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

In 2004 in Beijing, China, two graduate students at a BSL3 and BSL4 labs acquired SARS and infected seven other people outside the lab. The incident resulted in one death and the quarantining of over 200 people in two provinces.

And in the United States, the only release of a dangerous pathogen that resulted in deaths occurred in 2001, when anthrax was intentionally released into the mail system infecting 18 and killing five people. A federal investigation has linked the spores to a US military BSL3 and BSL4 labs in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

At least three researchers who were recently hired to join Boston University’s biolab come directly from the U.S. Army research institute at Fort Detrick. Ironically, one of such researchers, Thomas W. Geisbert, expressed great concern on April 2006 about the government’s efforts to build several new high-level containment labs. "That is one of my biggest fears," he was quoted saying by The New York Times about how as the number of biolabs grow, the number of people potentially exposed to deadly pathogens would probably increase. Dr. Geisbert’s wife, Joan Geisbert, was hired to help develop policies and standard opeating procedures at the controversial BU’s biolab.


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