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News :: Education : Environment : Human Rights : Organizing : Politics : Race : Social Welfare : Technology
Local Struggle Against Bioterror
03 Mar 2006
This article is about the proposed BSL4 Biolab that Boston University has been contracted to build by the Department of Homeland Security in the middle of a predominantly poor and minority neighborhood - Roxbury. It includes a brief history of biotechnology research as well as instances of human animals used in research by the government.
Roxbury is a community of powerful and determined people that you would know if Boston weren’t divided by the lines of color and class that plague American society. It is also a community in which children have an asthma-related hospitalization rate that is eight times the state average (Senate Report from December 2002). This is because there are 15 bus and truck depots within a 1.5 square-mile radius of Dudley Square, housing over half of the MBTA bus fleet (Survey conducted by Alternatives for Community and Environment [ACE] ). The New Village Journal reports that there are 54 identified hazardous waste sites (known as Superfunds) within a 1.5 square-mile radius of Dudley Square and 13 trash transfer stations in Roxbury. And now the neighborhood, as well as the entirety of Boston, is facing an even larger environmental problem: the building of a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) facility in the middle of Roxbury/South End.

Boston University has been contracted to build this National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory with $128 million of federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, BU will be contributing $42.3 million towards the project, which will be primarily financed through tuition money, alumni donations, and other miscellaneous donors that advance BU’s near-corporate status. In spite of three years of community opposition led by ACE and community off-shoot SafetyNet that BU has repeatedly refused to acknowledge, BU gained expected federal approval to begin construction as soon as this month and plans to complete the lab by 2008. This means that thus far only the Level 2 and 3 components of the lab have been approved and will be housed in the building they plan to construct, but Level 4 approval is just on the horizon.

The BSL4 lab will be conducting research on the world’s deadliest pathogens like Ebola, Viral Hemorrhagic Fever, Botulism, the Plague, Tularemia, and Anthrax (known collectively as Category A pathogens). These pathogens can be made airborne, thus allowing for the most deadly and rapid transmission. All of the research conducted would be on our fellow animals, locked in cages and injected with these deadly pathogens. Frightened and imprisoned, they will furiously lash out at sadistic experimenters who believe that they have the right (as a “superior” species?) to destroy everything that stands below them in their imaginary hierarchical pyramid of importance. These dangerous diseases have an incubation time of anywhere between one and 14 days. Incubation refers to the time in which a person can be infected without showing any visible symptoms.

There are only three other BSL4 labs in the U.S.: the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia; the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas; and the US Army Research Institute on Infectious Diseases (USARIID) at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. All of the aforementioned labs are in outlying parts of their respective cities. When questioned why these labs are built in sparsely populated areas, the National Institute of Health responded in a memo dated January 9, 2003, that “the location of the laboratory reduces the possibility that an accidental release of a biosafety level 4 organism would lead to a major public health disaster.”

So why the change in scenery? Why put the lab in an area that contains 50,000 people within a one-mile radius and one million within a 10-mile radius? Have the world’s most deadly diseases somehow become…less deadly? The answers to those questions are only known by the powers at the top, and we can only speculate about the military’s shady reasons for sponsoring this research and Boston’s greedy and grandoise desire to be the hub of Anthrax production. Since 2001, the federal budget for research on biological weapons has increased from $56 million to $1.8 billion (nih.gov). In fact, the BU biolab is just one of three prospective BSL4 labs that the federal government is funding, the other two are in Galveston, Texas and Hamilton, Montana (also less populated areas). It seems that something huge is in the works, and the complete lack of transparency does not placate any suspicions that we may have about the issue.

The amount of communication between BU and the Boston community regarding this lab has been laughable, with representatives of the University refusing to attend an informational meeting with ACE on February 28, 2004, and canceling their attendance at a BU student forum regarding the matter on April 12 of the same year. This is all contrary to BUMC claims that: “Community outreach is an ongoing component of the project (bostonbiosafety.com).” In addition, the information that BU has released concerning the biolab in glossy ads on subway trains, buses, and inside newspapers have been mired by vague rhetoric and blatantly false information. BU’s overt propaganda-pushing website about the lab claims that “there has NEVER been a community incident or accidental environmental release connected with a lab of this kind” (bostonbiosafety.org).

Interesting comment, considering there were two employees of the USAMRIID at Fort Detrick who tested positive for Anthrax in 2002 (Research, Education, and Advocacy for Change [REACH]). Not to mention that the Anthrax used in the mailing fiasco of September 18, 2001, when anonymous agents mailed Anthrax to a number of people including two U.S. Senators and ultimately killed five people, was eventually traced back to that same Fort Detrick BSL4 lab. Disappointing, considering that it claims to be the safest of all the BSL4 labs in existence because of its overt connections with the military (The Guardian, February 20, 2002).

The lab in Fort Detrick is not the only suspect operation in existence. The BU Medical Center (BUMC) has also had its fair share of mishaps. In January of 2005, the Boston Globe reported three separate incidents of BUMC researchers that had become infected with Tularemia, information that was kept secret from the public since 2004 – even after two of the three researchers were hospitalized with the illness. Tularemia is the most infectious pathogenic bacterium known on earth. The symptoms are similar to the flu, yet within two weeks of infection death may result (whyfiles.org). Similarly, the symptoms of Anthrax are akin to a common cold and the pre-exposure vaccine to this disease is available exclusively to military personnel, it has a nearly 100% mortality rate (fda.gov). The Plague, also known as “black death,” altered the demography of the entire medieval world. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union weaponized this bacterium and made it airborne; it now proves to be fatal within six days of infection. Lastly, but by no means the least, is Ebola. A protein on the surface of this bacterium destroys the lining of blood vessels, resulting in uncontrollable bleeding through most body parts (i.e.: gums, ears, nose, eyes, anus, and genitals). So now the question is, do we even trust BU to handle these diseases (never mind the fact that they will literally reside right next door to us)? Or maybe the question should be: do we trust the federal government with this type of research?

Another, albeit not necessarily dishonest, claim is that “the goal of these studies is to develop drugs, treatments and vaccines to combat these microorganisms so that they no longer pose a threat to public health” (bostonbiosafety.com). Yet, do they really pose a public health threat? The actual number of human animal infections per year of these Category A pathogens are far and few between, perhaps a handful per year, yet the federal budget to “research cures” for these diseases is $1.8 billion. Here is what poses a threat in the world that we live in: influenza kills 36,000 people per year (even though the CDC admits to having an average of 3.5 million doses of vaccine available at the end of every year [hhs.gov]), food-borne illness results in the deaths of 5,000 per year, and 88,000 people per year die from Tuberculosis – to name a few. So why was the federal budget only $150 million for the fiscal years 2004 and 2005, with the CDC asking for a mere $120 million in 2006 (hhs.gov)?

In 1932, the federal government funded the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which 200 black men were given Syphilis and then observed just to see the course of the illness. They were observed, and withheld the vaccine, during times of painful bodily manifestations, dementia, and, ultimately, death (cdc.gov). Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of U.S. servicemen were exposed to mustard gas – just to see what effect it had. In 1965, Agent Orange was used on prisoners in Holmesburg State Prison in Philadelphia. This is in addition to the 19 million gallons of Agent Orange that was used between 1961 and 1971 in Vietnam destroying crops and causing cancer, birth defects, and stillbirths. In 1990, 1,500 six-month year old black and Latino babies in Los Angeles were given an experimental measles vaccine that was never licensed to be used. The Center for Disease Control admits that this was all done for experimental purposes (abovetopsecret.com). And on November 15, 2005 the Department of Defense admitted to using White Phosphorous in Fallujah, an airborne chemical that, once it comes into contact with skin, keeps burning until it runs out of oxygen (news.bbc.co.uk). For a more in-depth timeline of research conducted on human animal subjects up to 2001 visit the Alliance for Human Research Protection at ahrp.org. These are only a few of the many documented travesties that our government has committed against our brothers and sisters. Will the “biochemical research” conducted in these newly founded BSL4 labs be any different, especially during the war on terrorism?

The dangers of biochemical research have not been lost on the world: in 1969, President Nixon carried out a nation-wide program to dispose of all biochemicals that had been researched or stockpiled. In 1972, nations around the world gathered to sign the Biological Weapons Convention to supplement the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The convention clearly states that:

Each state party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

As can be expected from international treaties, a means to enforce these rules was never developed and nations continued brewing deadly pathogens to share with the world’s inhabitants. In the 1990s, nations realized that this was a problem and started to develop enforcement agencies. After September 11, 2001, the US predictably pulled out of the treaty with claims that it would hinder “biodefense” research.

But the Department of Homeland Security and their allies at BU have yet another legislative hurtle to leap before building the BSL4 lab in Boston. A 1994 regulation passed by the Boston Public Health Commission banned recombinant DNA research in Boston. A February 10, 2006 editorial in the Boston Globe by Professor of Environmental Health at BU David Ozonoff and Daniel Goodenough, Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical Center raises this issue, and is published in full here.

If this lab is built, it is not inconceivable that a researcher could become infected (like the Tularemia outbreak at the BUMC and other well-documented cases by REACH). Another possible scenario is that a Fed-Ex delivery van transporting the pathogens (this is how the pathogens will arrive in Boston) could get into an accident, and a disease would be airborne. Or an employee at the biolab could steal a pathogen and release it (like the Anthrax from Fort Detrick). In a recent Roxbury Community Press Conference, City Councilor Felix Arroyo pointed out that there are 600,000 permanent residents in Boston yet a total of two million people in the city daily for business and tourism. This means that there are 1.2 million people who commute to and from Boston every day: one infection could easily spread well beyond Boston.

Contrary to the implications of Mayor Thomas Menino’s evacuation plan, if an outbreak does occur, there will not be an evacuation – there will be a quarantine. Since the biolab will be a federal facility, officials at the lab cannot alert the local public of an outbreak directly. Biolab officials will have to somehow alert the President who will then have to meet with other members of the executive branch, who will then have to meet with appropriate groups to deal with an emergency (press secretary, FEMA director, senators, congress etc.). Eventually, after the entire chain of communication has been exhausted, someone alerts us, the people who had 30 minutes to get out of Boston before becoming infected. And how are they going to alert all of us? What about those of us who don’t have TVs or radios?

After reviewing this information, it is clear why the community of Roxbury does not want this lab to built in their community, yet their voices have been repeatedly ignored. For three years the coalition opposing the lab has been focusing its energies on legal channels to no avail. Most of the politicians representing Boston, including Mayor Menino, federal and state senators and representatives, save Gloria Fox, and our City Councilors, save Charles Yancey, Maura Hennigan, Chuck Turner and Felix Arroyo, support the lab. Because of this, the coalition has expanded and tactics of direct action are being utilized – our voices are gaining strength. As Roxbury City Councilor Chuck Turner said at a recent community press conference: “We can stop the lab. It’s just a matter of if we have the will to do it.” This Level 4 component will not be built because we would rather see our bodies in front of a bulldozer than submit to yet another blatant case of environmental racism.

I urge you all to go and visit the site of the proposed biolab at the intersection of Albany and Washington, across from the BUMC. The juxtaposition of the placement of the lab next to a gigantic flower exchange is tragic. Leave it to the human animal to impose her absurd paradox onto the external world: fated to live in a mortal and fragile physical body yet possessing a mind of near god-like creative capabilities. Is this why we feel the need to create (a term once associated with life) tools of death? Does our ability to destroy the life force of others give us some sense of expanding our own? Will building this lab really placate our insecurities about “terror” attacks, or merely place the US (once again) as the cause of those very same insecurities? To place a research facility of death next to so many creatures that represent life is preposterous: the money-mongers are laughing at us, and we cannot let them have the last laugh.
See also:
http://thestudentunderground.org/article.php?id=147&issue=55

This work is in the public domain
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Re: Local Struggle Against Bioterror
04 Mar 2006
Once again, great article Alia! I am a big fan of your writing skills, and this article is very well rounded.