Has biodefense research made America a safer place to live?

Published 4 October 2009

Death of University of Chicago scientist as a result of infection with the plague bacterium, raises more questions about the downside of growing research into bio terror agents — and the means to counter them

Has the massive expansion of biodefense research in the United States since the 2001 anthrax letters made America a safer place, or more dangerous? Peter Aldhous writes that this is the burning question among specialists in infectious disease, after a flurry of concerns about safety at labs handling potential bioweapons agents.

Biosafety was already on the political agenda, with the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce having scheduled a hearing for 22 September on government oversight of high-containment biolabs. The hearing was given a sharper edge by the revelation that Malcolm Casabadan, a microbiologist at the University of Chicago, had died just days before (see 24 September 2009 HSNW).

The prime culprit for Casabadan’s death is a vaccine strain of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which he was working with. Why Casabadan should have succumbed to a weakened strain is still a mystery, but one possibility, raised by the University of Chicago’s chief of pediatric infectious disease, Kenneth Alexander, according to the New York Times, is that he may have had an abnormality in his iron metabolism that rendered him more susceptible.

While the investigation continues, Casabadan’s memory is already being co-opted by those who see the expansion of U.S. biodefense research as folly.

On the BioWeapons Prevention Project’s discussion board (registration required), Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in New Jersey says:

The post-2001 bioweapons-research expansion has claimed its first victim…Casadaban’s expertise — and it was impressive — was in Escherichia coli genetics.  I do not believe there is even a remote possibility that he would have been working on Yersinia pestis vaccines had it not been for the post-2001 prioritization of bioweapons research.

Ebright was the organizer of a 2005 open letter to Elias Zerhouni, then director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which 750 biologists argued that the agency’s emphasis on biodefense since had diverted scientists from important basic research.

He has also criticized earlier, non-fatal safety lapses, such as the infections of lab workers with the bacteria that cause brucellosis and Q fever that in 2007 prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)to shut down biodefense research at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Aldhous writes that other biologists argue that the expansion of biodefense research, which has led to a boom in construction of high-containment labs for dangerous pathogens, has been a good thing. Testifying to House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Ron Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, speaking for the American Society for Microbiology, argued that such infrastructure was vital for developing a vaccine against swine flu. He went on to caution against stringent new safety rules:

It took a number of years and substantial effort to arrive at the careful equilibrium that currently exists to oversee and manage research activities. We believe that precipitous, excessive policy changes could upset this delicate balance and, therefore, should be considered in the context of the critical need to conduct public health activities.

Still, few people like the idea of having a facility full of deadly bacteria and viruses in their back yard — as a panel of the National Academy of Sciences heard from a group called Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety on the same day that Atlas testified in Congress. The panel is considering the health and safety risks associated with a $680-million high-containment lab complex planned at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland (see 28 September 2009 HSNW).

Given that USAMRIID was the workplace of the late Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect for the 2001 anthrax attacks, such scrutiny is hardly surprising. But according to testimony from Nancy Kingsbury of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the expansion of such facilities across the nation has been so uncoordinated that no federal agency knows how many now exist. Kingsbury told the House committee:

While there is a consensus among federal agency officials and experts that some degree of risk is always associated with high-containment laboratories, no one agency is responsible for determining, or able to determine, the aggregate or cumulative risks associated with the expansion of these high-containment laboratories. As a consequence, no federal agency can determine whether high-containment laboratory capacity may now meet or exceed the national need or is at a level that can be operated safely.

Aldhous writes that it seems that the bacterium being blamed for Casabadan’s death did not even require a high containment lab. “Perhaps his demise will now trigger a more considered debate into how many such facilities are needed, and how many billions of dollars for biodefense are enough,” Aldhous concludes