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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense Research

An Interview with Mary Wulff

Mary Wulff is a former, veteran law enforcement officer from Southern California, who moved to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in 1990. Mary began networking with other concerned citizens as well as local and national environmental groups after hearing of the proposed Level 4 BioLab in Hamilton. She formed the Coalition for a Safe Lab in the summer of 2002.
The Coalition for a Safe Lab is a Montana non-profit group whose mission is "to provide the public with accurate and current information about issues surrounding the proposed BioSafety Level 4 lab upgrade at Rocky Mountain Labs, and to encourage active citizen involvement in the preservation of public safety and environmental quality in and around our community."

What is your most significant fear/concern about the government-proposed high level (BSL-3 and 4) labs?

First, I have to say that I do not like to use the word "fear" when referring to the issues surrounding the Level 4 Lab. The proliferation of these types of labs, and these types of research is based on fear--the fear that the diseases and pathogens may be used against us as weapons.
One of the main concerns is for the safety of our community. We live in a small community of around 3,700 people. We live in a valley with ingress/egress of North or South on a 2-lane highway. National Institutes of Health has not completed any type of emergency plan, or plan of evacuation in the event of an accidental release of deadly pathogens from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

Hamilton's hospital has no isolation/quarantine room, and the nearest isolation rooms are an hour's drive away, in Missoula, MT at St. Pat's hospital.

The government states that such labs are necessary for preserving our national security and maintaining emergency preparedness in case of a crises: Do you agree or disagree?

I can answer only about what I believe personally, not for the Coalition.
I disagree. If the same amount of money being put into these types of labs was put into community health and preparedness, I believe we would be much farther along in the "war on terror." Spending the money on what seems to me to be redundant research, and research on pathogens that are not likely to be used as weapons against us, is spending money in the wrong areas. If this money were to be utilized for healthcare and prevention, rather than research that is been done over and over, it would be a better expenditure of funding.

The government claims that the labs are only for defensive measures. Is it a valid fear that the activities and research in the labs are also for offensive means to create weapons?

There is a fine line between what is considered offensive and defensive. According to a recent article, "'Weaponized' simply means that a biological agent is processed so that it can be easily delivered to harm or kill humans."

The NOVA Bioterror web site explains this in greater detail:

"Q: What exactly does it mean to "weaponize" a biological agent. How do
weaponized and nonweaponized anthrax differ?
A: "Weaponization" refers to a variety of activities aimed at rendering a
biological pathogen more virulent, enhancing its stability and shelf-life, and processing it so that it can be more readily delivered as a fine-particle aerosol capable of infecting the targeted population through the air. Non-weaponized anthrax would be in the vegetative (non-spore) form, which would die off rapidly after dispersal. Weaponized anthrax would be in the spore form and probably dried and milled to a fine powder, with chemicals added to reduce clumping and to enhance
aerosolization. It is possible that the perpetrators of the recent anthrax
attacks had only a few grams of weaponized anthrax, making delivery through the mail the only practical means of delivery. Alternative explanations are that they do not want to kill indiscriminately but simply to terrorize the U.S. population, or that they plan to escalate gradually to more extensive attacks."

According to Rocky Mountain Labs' BioSafety Committee meeting minutes, they are considering testing aerosolized anthrax on "non-human primates".According to the NIH in their statements to direct questions put to them by the public, biological weapons can be present and even created at RML. It can be kept secret from the public. Buried several hundred pages down in the back of the Final Environmental Impact Statement is:

"Question (62-9): Is there any law or regulation that prohibits the presence of an agent that was designed as a biological weapon to be present at RML? Yes__ No__.
NIH Response: No. "Please see page 1-1 of the FEIS were this has been addressed." FEIS, Page 5-145

Question: "Is there any law or regulation that prohibits the creation of an agent that is designed as a biological weapon to be present at RML for study for peaceful purposes? Yes__ No__."
NIH Response: No. "Please see response to comment 62-9." FEIS, Page 5-145

Question: "Will agents be present at RML that NIH will consider classified information that they will refuse to disclose for any reason, including national security reasons? Yes__ No__." FEIS, Page 5-146
NIH Response: ... it is possible that some information about research conducted at the RML could be classified.

Question: "Have there been agents present whose presence NIH has or would now consider as classified information or have or would refuse to disclose for any reason, including national security reasons. Yes__ No__." FEIS, Page 5-146
NIH Response: Yes. Agents that are on the NIH inventory that are currently classified have been present at RML in the past."

The universities and sites that have placed bids to get funds and grants from the government to host such labs claim the labs will actually benefit the community by providing jobs and revenue: do you agree or disagree? Why?

Possibly in the short-term, for larger cities, this may be true. I have my doubts about the town of Hamilton seeing much of an increase in revenue over the long-term.

In regards to the lab-related outbreaks of SARS and polio earlier this year overseas, do such incidents justify your groups beliefs on the safety and security of the labs?

"Accidents can happen". The lab buildings may be state-of-the-art in design and hopefully, function; however humans still work in the labs.
According to Freedom Of Information Act documents obtained by Friends of the Bitterroot, there have been several lab accidents at Rocky Mountain Labs. Several lab workers were exposed to Yersinia pestis (Plague); several workers converted to positive for Tuberculosis; several lab workers were exposed to Chlamydia pneumoniae (one of the pneumonia strains); recently a lab worker was infected with Salmonella; a bag of radioactive waste was lost and never recovered; workers are stuck with needles quite often in the lab setting.

In February 2004, a researcher at Fort Detrick pricked herself with a needle while working with Ebola. She was quarantined (after first going home). Though she did not get sick, the possibility does exist that a worker could become infected after being exposed and transmit a deadly disease to a family member, or someone else in the community.

After the anthrax attacks it was discovered that the strain of anthrax that was used came out of one of our own U.S. Labs. I would also refer readers to the recent article, "Lab tightens biosafety:Department of Homeland Security alters procedures after foot-and-mouth disease spreads in lab".

If the lab were built despite your efforts, what could the government and the hosting facility do to make the community feel less fearful and reassure citizens of the purpose of the lab?

The community would feel less concerned if more assurances had been made during the initial public comment period and also if NIH officials had been less condescending and more open during the process. Many people who attended public meetings had specific questions and felt that they were not being listened to or taken seriously.

A well-thought out, and well-funded emergency plan should have been put into place during the public comment period. It is crucial to assuring the safety and security of our community.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) did not discuss "worst case scenarios". The document discussed if something were to spill inside a BL-4, that it would not get out. The worst case scenario would be if something were to get out and how that would be handled and mitigated.

The proposed upgrade to a Level 4 facility was decided long before public comment was sought. Before the comment period ended, Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) had been waiting for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents from NIH. While waiting for these documents, FOB had been denied a fee waiver for the documents and had to go through an attorney in an attempt to get the fee waived and obtain the documents. The comment period ended and the Record Of Decision was signed by NIH (on the very day the comment period ended), and FOB has still not obtained those documents. Due to being denied those additional documents, the community could not adequately comment on the FEIS.
A memo from NIAID is listed on SAMPAN's website which basically says because we are a small community, that we are expendable:

"Located in rural western Montana well removed from major
population centers. Location of lab reduces possibility that an
accidental release of BSL-4 organisms would lead to a major public
health disaster."

The memo, unfortunately, it is not on letterhead and not signed, though the FOIA officer with NIH did say that Thomas Kindt [Director of the NIAID Division of Intramural Research] was the source of the memo, and Kindt said an intern wrote it---the information was obtained in our original FOIA request. [NIAID stated that the memo is authentic but "does not reflect Institute views. The release of the document was a mistake."]

Does your group simply want to stop the building of the lab in your community or completely? For instance, if the government took its plans to the next city on its list of hosts, would you help their community fight the developments?

We do not want to stop the upgrade, though many members of our group are against the proposed upgrade as the situation now stands.
We want to see the public process, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) done by the letter. We want our community to be assured of every possible contingency.

And yes, we would help another community in their fight of further lab developments. There seems to be a proliferation of these types of labs across the United States. According to Professor Richard Ebright of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, "An increase in BL4-containment capacity may have a negative impact on US security—by increasing the number of locations and persons with access to BL4 agents, and thus increasing the likelihood of accidental or deliberate release of BL4 agents".

Submitted by: Melody Parsa, 2004 intern