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Biology and Security

In the years following the September 11th attacks, the United States has maintained a two-front campaign against future assaults—striking suspected terrorist bases around the world, and creating preliminary defense strategies at home. While American troops remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, American citizens respond to new laws and procedures designed to enhance security and restrict criminals. Updates on foreign events compete with coverage of legislative battles on the front pages of every newspaper in the nation. The "War on Terror" has just begun.

The effort has focused largely on "biological weapons"— bacteria or viruses purposely used to infect large numbers of people—due to their small cost and easy production in comparison to nuclear and chemical weapons. The international front seeks to destroy illegal weapons caches and create a global effort to restrict the production of more. The domestic front attempts to capture suspected terrorists, enhance security against terrorist attacks, and produce new vaccines against biological weapons.

With such high stakes, it is natural that many concerned people have criticized the government's current methods. International efforts have encountered stiff resistance by other countries that worry about American domination and the loss of sovereign power. Domestic efforts face opposition from interest groups and scientific organizations, who combat the possibility of an oppressive government response.

Internationally, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (generally referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention, or BWC) remains the largest effort to control and prevent the spread of biological weapons. This convention is made up of member states, or "States Parties", that signed a United Nations document created by the United States and Russia. It outlaws any States Parties from producing, stockpiling, or transferring biological weapons.

Unfortunately, the BWC does not have the power to ensure compliance. The need for this power became clear in 1992, when the former Soviet Union admitted to having violated the convention for twenty years. As a result, it was decided that a smaller group of member states would create a compliance and verification protocol to which all member states would adhere. This group was called the "Ad Hoc Group of States Parties" (AHG) and began work in January 1995. However, the AHG system was effectively abandoned in 2002 after the United States actively opposed the process itself, raising arguments about the effectiveness of the results. This opposition has damaged the United States' relations with other countries, including close allies. Currently, the BWC holds annual meetings designed to create a new protocol.

Part of the problem with ensuring compliance with the BWC lies in the previously mentioned ability to easily conceal, then rapidly reproduce, infectious material. Another problem is the need nations have in possessing such material for research. Scientists must have ready access to infectious material in order to study it. Vaccines cannot be created without the diseases themselves; however, easy access to the material makes theft a greater possibility.

These two fears became the focal point behind a prominent scientist's arrest and trial. Dr. Thomas Butler, a professor at Texas Tech University, was arrested in January 2003 after reporting 30 vials of plague bacteria missing from his laboratory. Butler had obtained the vials as part of his research. The FBI arrested and charged Butler with smuggling the vials into the country and lying to federal officials. The latter charge came from a confession Butler had signed stating he had knowingly destroyed the vials beforehand. In response, Butler claimed the vials had been transported normally and the confession had been obtained under duress.

The case expanded on September 3 after 51 new charges were added to the original 15. These charges were mostly based on fraud and embezzlement. Several prominent scientists and scientific organizations, including the Institute of Medicine and the National Academies of Science, reacted negatively, arguing that the FBI was seeking a guilty verdict regardless of the facts. They said that such overzealous prosecution would discourage others from vital anti-biological weapon research.

Butler received a guilty verdict on December 1, 2003; however, he was cleared of most of the original charges. After relinquishing his medical license in early February, Butler was sentenced on March 10 to two years in prison and $50,000 in fines. He filed for appeal on March 25, 2004.

The actions taken against Butler were based on the possible theft of dangerous bacteria. However, the ability of terrorists to "steal" scientific knowledge is equally dangerous. Research on deadly diseases may be used to make those diseases even deadlier—a biological weapon could be modified to spread faster or become more infectious. However, that same research could also be the key to creating effective vaccines, and knowing how a disease infects people can lead to methods designed to prevent that infection.

This problem is called the "dual-use dilemma", and solutions have been difficult to find. Some believe scientists should regulate themselves; others think the government should be able to control what information can be published. To deal with the problem, the Secretary of Health and Human Services announced the creation of a National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB) on March 4, 2004. The board, based on a report made by the nonprofit National Research Council, will help scientists design experiments and editors publish findings, in ways that minimize the ability of terrorists to abuse the information. Scientists and public policy organizations have generally reacted favorably to the board's creation; a few cited concerns regarding a lack of details. It is still too early to determine the effect the board will have on scientific research.

Other government programs have focused directly on protecting citizens from attack. Project Bioshield, announced during the President's 2003 State of the Union address, is designed to encourage commercial development of vaccines. If enacted, it could spur the development of inexpensive and effective vaccines for biological weapons. However, Project Bioshield languished in the Senate for over a year, receiving little attention from Congress; some accused the Bush Administration of lackluster support. The Senate version of the bill, which costs $5.6 billion, finally passed on May 19, 2004, boosting the stock of several biotechnology companies.

While future vaccines are key to the government's efforts to protect its citizens, pre-existing developments are also being put to use. On March 12, 2004 the Washington Post reported a massive government purchase of anthrax vaccine—enough to inoculate 25 million people. Over the next two years, the purchase will be added to a stockpile of smallpox vaccines large enough to protect every American citizen. When completed, the stockpile will fulfill section 121 of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, an act designed to create a comprehensive national defense against biological terror attacks. Other sections provide for greater communication between hospitals; new rules on animal testing; and precise control over the nation's food supply. Most of the sections will take years of preparation to complete.

Unfortunately, the effect of modern vaccines is not always easy to predict. Some vaccinations against possible biological weapons, such as anthrax, have been blamed for giving soldiers severely damaging illnesses during the 1991 Gulf War. This collection of symptoms has been named "Gulf War Syndrome," and while there have been no official studies that prove a specific cause of the illness, many people cite credible research that points to the vaccines. Despite these claims, in 1998, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen approved mandatory vaccinations for all members of the Armed Forces. The mandatory Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP) experienced technical difficulties, including a shortage of vaccine, until 2002, when it was resumed; it was halted again in 2003 after questions regarding the legality of the program led to a preliminary injunction. The program was then resumed again after the court order was stayed on January 7, 2004.

The AVIP is criticized by several groups who have drawn conclusions that the anthrax vaccine is dangerous. Other groups believe the mandatory nature of the vaccinations is unconstitutional. Several media stories have focused on troops returning from the current war in Iraq with symptoms similar to Gulf War Syndrome. The military states that the vaccine is safe and necessary to protect troops. Currently, the AVIP remains in effect.

The United States faces many difficulties in the years ahead; the threat of biological warfare is only one of them. Efforts to combat this unique type of weapon have received mixed support at home and abroad. The American public must remain informed of these developments in order to address current and future challenges in biology and security.

Submitted by: William Yoon, American University, Spring/Summer 2004 intern