Wednesday, January 12, 2005

US Biodefense Crossing the Line?

A recent report published on TheScientist.com pertains to developments in the biodefense program in the United States of America.  Apparently, we are planning to spend about $1.7 billion dollars to expand the amount of Biosafety Level Four labs in the country.  They add:
[...] Critics immediately condemned the plans, charging they would violate international bioweapons treaties and may set off a global biological arms race. For example, the new lab will genetically alter bioweapon diseases and package them so they can be dispersed as weapons.

While a DHS spokeswoman later characterized this research as necessary to learn how to counter such weapons, three veteran US biological arms control experts strongly disagreed. The DHS plans "may constitute [prohibited weapon] development in the guise of threat assessment, and they certainly will be interpreted that way" by other countries, wrote James Leonard, Milton Leitenberg, and Richard Spertzel in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences in May. [...]

It was not obvious, immediately, what the criticism was about.  Turning to the article cited, Biodefense Crossing the Line, we get some more specific information:
[...] Task areas for biothreat-agent (BTA) analysis and technical-threat assessment were summarized as "Acquire, Grow, Modify, Store, Stabilize, Package, Disperse."   Classical, emerging, and genetically engineered pathogens are to be characterized for their BTA potential. Aerobiology, aerosol physics, and environmental stability will be studied in wet-laboratory and computer-laboratory settings.   Computational modeling of feasibility, methods, and scale of production will be undertaken, and   Red Team   operational scenarios and capabilities will be assessed. BTA use and countermeasure effectiveness will be studied across the spectrum of potential attack scenarios through [h]igh-fidelity modeling and simulation.   And so forth.

The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness, and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), are startling. [...]

In recent remarks elsewhere, Dr. Korch noted that one NBACC objective, creation of genetically engineered agents, might raise BWC compliance questions. Yet other NBACC objectives could prove even more problematic. [...]

Work on bioregulators and immunomodulators in the former Soviet offensive BW program during the 1980s is in retrospect realized to have been among the most dangerous and reprehensible of its numerous nefarious activities, despite having never approached weaponization, staying safely at research-and-development stages. Other than context  -- a preposterously huge offensive BW program -- was work on bioregulators and immunomodulators qualitatively different from the work now to be carried out in the United States?
So, we are planning to work with genetically modified pathogens.  This work is to involve studies of aerobiology and aerosol physics.  The authors point out that it is very difficult to establish a clear distinction between defensive work, and that which would constitute weapons development. 

I happen to be somewhat knowledgeable about things such as bacteria, viruses, and disease, although I am not an expert on biological warfare.  It is not clear that there is any legitimate rationale for working with genetically modified pathogens.  It would seem that the defense against such organisms would not be substantially different than the defense against naturally-occurring organisms.  The threat assessments would vary, of course, but I cannot think of how one could quantify that without actually using the agents to infect people.  Even being as cynically as I am, I doubt that human experimentation is being contemplated.  So if the use of genetically-modified pathogens cannot be justified on the basis of need for the development of defense, and if risk assessment cannot be done ethically, what is the purpose of experimentation with such organisms? 

Is there are reason that an outside observer might think that the US work is not defensive?
Recently declassified documents demonstrate that the US intelligence community possesses evidence demonstrating that interested terrorist groups --  al Qaeda among them -- still have no capability to work with classical BW agents and certainly cannot engineer agents genetically.
The United States of American already has cast aside any right to a presumption of innocent motives. A country that endorses the use of torture, alienates the UN and the World Court, and  endorses a policy of preemptive military action, cannot be assumed to have innocent motives. 

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