The Bio-Offense Lab
January 19, 2005

Maria Tomchick

People fear the flu, with justification. An ordinary, garden-variety flu bug can kill thousands of people in a year, especially young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems like cancer patients or organ donor recipients.

So why is the University of Washington pursuing $22 million in federal funding for a new bioterrorism research lab that will study pathogens like smallpox and anthrax, which have killed only a handful of people in the past decade?

In 2003, the UW won $50 million from the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defense to set up a regional biodefense center to study pathogens that could be used to make bioweapons: anthrax, plague, tularemia, smallpox, etc. According to NIH documents, the UW will concentrate on studying the respiratory effects of these germs, with an overall goal of developing new vaccines and treatments for infected people.

But there already is a new, potent vaccine for anthrax, developed in Europe, that has fewer side-effects than the old anthrax vaccine that the Bush administration foisted on US troops in the post-Sept. 11th, post-anthrax attack hysteria. Smallpox exists only in labs; the last known smallpox infection was in 1977. Plague and tularemia don't even make the list of the world's worst diseases--a list dominated by malaria, AIDS, cholera, diarrheal diseases, and other side-effects of poverty, war, and maldevelopment.

In fact, the UW won the NIH grant over worthier applicants, including the Oregon Health and Science University, which is concentrating its research on West Nile virus and Dengue fever, two diseases which do still exist in the wild, are expanding their range because of global warming, and infect a large number of people every year. In addition, OHSU is currently studying why people with weakened immune systems have bad reactions to vaccines--a purpose far more useful than the chimerical "biodefense" argument used by the UW and the NIH.

The UW has secretly applied for $22 million grant to construct a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory in the heart of the UW's health sciences complex, right next to the UW hospital and bordering two busy streets, a heavily used campus walkway, and one of the cities' most traveled waterways. The university somehow forgot to consult its faculty, students, employees, the local neighborhood, and residents of the city itself, although the university lined up an impressive array of local politicians to support its application: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowski, Washington State Governor Gary Locke, and both of Washington's Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray--who, by the way, support the project because the university has assured them "there will be robust outreach and educational programs throughout our region to keep the public informed about safety and security issues."

The UW's record on this count, however, has been exceedingly poor so far. Everything has been done behind closed doors, from the application for the $22 million, to the discussions on what research will be conducted, to any discussion of where the remainder of the construction money will come from. Yes, didn't you hear? A $22 million grant will only finance about one-third of the cost of building the new lab: the rest of the money has to come from "other sources"--all of them public sources, in one way or another.

That $44 million could be drained from other university research and teaching programs, including vital AIDS-related research or funding for the hospital, which treats thousands of low-income people every year. It could come from the state legislature, in a year when the state is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and 60,000 Washington children have been dropped off the Medicaid rolls. This year, the state-funded Basic Health Plan, which provides healthcare coverage for low-income, working Washingtonians, is facing its most severe cuts yet, and many analysts are predicting its total demise.

The state could raise $44 million in bonds to finance construction (one of the most popular options). Much like George Bush's deficit spending, bond issues are like borrowing money on a credit card, paying interest, and forgetting that the full amount has to be paid eventually, perhaps at a time when state residents will need those funds for more important things.

How quickly we forget our priorities when the UW and state politicians mouth the "job creation" mantra. In fact, the lab itself will employ about 1,000 researchers. That number seems small, until we remember that the only recent bioterrorist attack on US soil--the anthrax scare in 2001--was perpetrated, not by "foreign terrorists", but by the disgruntled employee of a bio-research laboratory here in the US. What's to prevent that from happening again? A few consultations with Gil Kerlikowski?

On the national level the construction of regional bioterrorism labs makes no sense. As with other ill-considered, Bush administration weapons policies (including missile defense and the attempt to revive nuclear weapons research), building new bioterrorism labs only makes other nations in the world nervous. It pushes them to revive their own dormant bioresearch labs or to acquire new stocks of dangerous biological agents. The US government has no control over research conducted in other nations, possibly under conditions that are far less secure than our own and might put millions of people at risk for accidental exposure. If such a disaster were to occur, we might beat our chests and rail at the bad guys or express shock and dismay, but we'd be ultimately responsible for the "accident." And who wants to see smallpox or anthrax take root in the human population again?

If we're truly worried about biosafety, we should guard ourselves from our government's own ill-advised policies and the zeal of a handful of university researchers and administrators motivated by money and prestige. They're not thinking about the big picture, and, unfortunately, the big picture includes the broader public health.