By Sue Greenwald|
Special to the Davis Enterprise
Proponents of the "Western Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases"
have downplayed the fact that the facility is a national biodefense
laboratory. Yet, according to the grant proposal, the lab's mission is to
"focus attention on those agents that pose the greatest risks to civilian
populations in the event of a bioterrorist attack."
Lab proponents have inaccurately portrayed the lab as a conventional
bio-medical research facility under University control. They have
justified it as essential to the diagnosis of diseases on the West Coast.
The facts do not support this view.
To begin with, proponents believe that the facility will be free to
support work on the most important human, plant and animal pathogens. While
I hope that their optimistic scenario will come to pass regardless of where
the facility is built, a realistic look at the lab's organizational
structure, its mission, and its source of funding illustrates clearly that
we must assume that the lab will be what it is intended to be: a national
biodefense laboratory. Only cabinet-level presidential appointees have the
authority to redefine biodefense as public health.
Consider these facts: First, the conditions of the grant dictate that the
building must preferentially support biodefense research. Secondly, the
money for the building comes from the portion of the Presidents Homeland
Security budget which is allocated for biodefense. Thirdly, while the NIH
administers the funds, the Secretaries of the departments of Homeland
Security and Health and Human Services have ultimate authority to set and
to change the NIH biodefense research priorities.
The building will be under federal control for 20 years, during which
time priority must be given first to NIH funded biodefense research and
then to "biodefense work funded by other agencies and entities". This
point is critical. Any agreement the University makes with the NIH
concerning University control would be subordinate to this clause. Hence,
if Congress slashes NIH biodefense funding, NIH could be left administering
a building used for biodefense work funded by entities such as the
Department of Defense or private corporations.
All federal biodefense research can ultimately be reprioritized by
the presidential appointees who will head the Homeland Security Department.
They might choose to define biodefense research broadly enough to support
some basic research and to study a few important diseases such as West Nile
fever, influenza, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis --the option the
University and the NIH would prefer.
Alternatively, however, they have the authority to define
biodefense more narrowly, emphasizing work on the "Class-A" bioterrorism
agents such as aerosolized anthrax. Which path they choose will depend on
who occupies the White House and on the outcome of the inevitable ongoing
inter-agency power struggles. Hopefully, the priority-setting authority
will be heavily delegated to the NIH, but many are skeptical.
One thing we do know is that this facility will include a BSL4 lab
where the most infectious, lethal, non-curable diseases are studied.
Whether or not there is a national need for additional BSL4 labs has
been under intense debate within the scientific community. Some
bio-medical researchers feel that more such labs are needed while others
feel that there is sufficient existing capacity and that additional BSL4
labs will only increase the likelihood of security breaches.
While this debate is on-going, what we do know is that very, very few
organisms need to be studied in a BSL 4 lab. Fewer still must be diagnosed
in one -- not hanta virus, not plague, not anthrax, not SARS. Due to
international treaty, smallpox could not be diagnosed at a Davis BSL4 lab.
Although proponents have claimed that this facility is needed to
diagnose dangerous human diseases more quickly, only the exotic hemorrhagic
fevers such as Ebola and a rare, exotic tick-born encephalitis require
diagnosis in a BSL4 lab. Neither is likely to arise in the United States.
An upgraded diagnostic lab need not be linked to a national biodefense
Finally, I would like to lay to rest the issue of classified
research. NIH has stated, in writing, that classified research may be
conducted at the facility if necessary to "serve national interests".
In fact, the concerns over openness should run much deeper.
Potential bioterrorism agents are a major focus of new federal legislation
and regulations that limit openness and increase surveillance.
The 2002 Bioterrorism Preparedness Act exempts from the Freedom of
Information Act much information on these agents, including the disclosure
of theft and accidents.
Even if UCD and the NIH prefer open research, the ultimate authority over
research conducted in this facility lies with cabinet level presidential
appointees and is regulated by federal law.
So I'd like to pose the question: Do we really want or need to be
an epicenter of the federal biodefense program? This program is
controversial within the scientific community. While some scientists view
it as an opportunity to divert Homeland Security dollars toward serious
research on infectious disease, others have argued that the program will
actually divert funds and scientific effort from more important bio-medical
research to the study of obscure organisms of relatively minor public
This skepticism has been widely reported in the press. The
world's prestigious scientific journal, Nature, recently lamented that the
NIH was ordered to purchase anthrax vaccine using research funds intended
for basic immunology, infectious disease and AIDS research. They fear this
is an early indication that the biodefense effort may have directed funds
away from important biomedical research, as well as an alarming sign that
the NIH is losing its autonomy.
A national biodefense laboratory with a BSL4 lab is going to
require extraordinary security. We will be faced with a massive structure
in a compound with perimeter fencing, all-night lighting, background checks
for personnel, and, inevitably, armed guards and security clearances.
Citizens from certain countries will be barred. The health and safety
implications surrounding the facility are profound and the extraordinary
level of required security would change the ambiance of our peaceful,
rural campus and our small family- oriented town. A national biodefense
laboratory with a fully operational BSL4 lab belongs in a more secure and
[Note: This op-ed was published in the July 13, 2003 Davis Enterprise. -- G. Richard Yamagata]