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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense Research

Since the events of September 11, 2001 terrorism has become an increasing focus of concern for many countries around the world. With mounting fears of bioterrorism as a possible means of attack, countries including the United States have been rapidly expanding research on biodefense studies. As a result of the growing interest in biodefense research, more labs have begun handling some of the most dangerous and lethal pathogens known to man. Although the research is meant for counter-attack measures, such as developing vaccines and drugs in case of bioterrorism, many are becoming concerned over such programs of study as being seriously hazardous to the general public. Many in the international community have begun questioning lab safety and regulations on biocontainment, shedding light on the often-unpublicized cases of lab accidents and mishandling of pathogens. Today, the debate surrounding the topic of biodefense research concerns lab safety, and the reality of outbreaks originating from lab misconduct. Biosafety programs are being scrutinized and closely watched as increasing numbers of lab-related outbreaks and illnesses are surfacing in the media, such as with the cases of SARS and polio in parts of Asia in early 2004.

As the nation faced the horrors of the terrorist and anthrax attacks in 2001, the shortage of high-level labs was a major concern if the country were to be prepared to protect its citizens with effective vaccines and proper medical care. The Bush Administration has offered plans with considerable amounts of funds dedicated to expanding the country's biosafety space, in order to develop high-level biocontainment labs nationwide. The proposed plans for the number of new biodefense facilities is staggering, calling for the establishment of more Biosafety Level (BSL-3 and 4 labs) in various locations across the country. Such high level labs contain deadly pathogens and select agents that are yet incurable, and need to be researched and studied. Along with the high-risk nature of the labs themselves, a disturbing issue for many Americans is the locations sought for the new facilities. The most heated debates fall on the grants given to Boston University Medical Center and University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, which already has a controversial biodefense program. Community members fear the new facilities pose unfair dangers and severe health risks to citizens. Opponents of new biocontainment facilities assert that not only are such research centers dangerous with regard to the health and welfare of the hosting community, should accidental outbreaks occur, but also that the labs themselves can be primary targets for possible terrorist acts. In other words, they do not want to have such programs in their back yards.

To many citizens and leaders, safety measures are a concern, as more information has become apparent in the SARS lab-related incidents in Singapore, China, Taiwan and even the accidental shipment of live anthrax spores in Oakland, California earlier this year. For instance, a Taiwanese scientist infected himself with SARS in late 2003, as a result of poor lab safety practices. Another similar case took place in Beijing in April 2004, when two positive cases of SARS, along with another half dozen suspected infected lab workers employed at China's Center for Disease Control, were reported. Within the United States, a recent and disturbing incident took place in Oakland, California where several lab workers were suspected of exposure to anthrax when a lab supplier from Maryland accidentally shipped live anthrax spores instead of dead microbe strains. Another US lab accident that left many concerned citizens baffled, was the exposure of the Ebola virus to a researcher at the US Army labs in February 2004. Critics and opponents of biodefense labs believe that such incidents justify their concerns, and give legitimacy to the fight to shut biocontainment labs in densely populated areas. They believe that precautionary and safety measures are not vigorous enough to ensure against future accidents that may cause a serious epidemic.

Despite the many concerns and fears expressed by citizens regarding BSL-3 and 4 lab development plans, supporters in the government, medical and research communities continue to defend the need for the facilities as a high national security priority. The need for such programs, according to supporters, should be unquestionable if the United States is to protect itself in the face of bioterrorism in the future. Without such research facilities, the country can be faced with detrimental consequences, particularly lack sophistication and medical advancements compared to other nations. Proponents of biodefense are aware of the scrutiny the programs are under as a result of the accidental release of viruses, and are working to restore the diminishing trust the public has towards the research community. In order to ease public concerns, supporters for biodefense research have stated they would firm up training of medical and research personnel to assure proper lab practices, and increase security measures to avoid accidental or deliberate outbreaks. Overall, biodefense researchers claim that the general public is not put in harm's way as they continue to expand the much-needed programs. Some researchers have joined fellow colleagues in asking members of the science community to post and publicly report lab accidents, to reduce fears of secrecy and lack of proper information available to the public about high-level biocontainment labs. However, only a few of these incidents have been reported, and despite the call for openness, no one knows the true number of lab accidents that have taken place, since some researchers and lab employees may fear loss of credibility, job, and severe punishments for their mistakes.

Another issue, outside US borders, is the call for an international standard for safety in the research and handling of deadly viruses to avoid a worldwide outbreak. In some countries, such as in Asia, deadly strains of viruses are studied in labs that are not designed for storing high-risk pathogens. In the international community, many fear the consequences of having low-level labs that only meet the standards of a BSL-1 or 2 work on dangerous viruses due to financial and economical sanctions may pose unimaginable dangers, and act as a time bomb for a deadly outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) Biosafety Advisory Group has been examining the cases to instill a rigorous international standardization, to be applied to all biocontainment labs to be officially categorized as high level labs capable of handling deadly pathogens. Although the WHO has a general knowledge on which countries have BSL-3 and 4 labs, and those who do not possess them and yet study viruses such as SARS, it does not have an official record of how many labs contain dangerous select agents. Since the WHO does not have enforcement power in the international community and can simply monitor and certify labs, it has taken steps to publish a new edition of its manual for lab biosafety, to provide a guide in testing and certifying high-level biocontainment labs and training employees.

As the debates continue within the United States and globally, both sides will try to prove whether the biocontainment labs will benefit national security, or put citizens in harm's way and expose them to possible deadly outbreaks.

Submitted by: Melody Parsa, 2004 intern