Sue Greenwald for City Council -- A Record You Can Trust
UCDavis Bio-Defense Laboratory
National politics, security issues will decide the mission.
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 laboratory.

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 health importance.

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 remote location.

[Note: This op-ed was published in the July 13, 2003 Davis Enterprise.

-- G. Richard Yamagata]

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