America's Bioterrorism Labs Under the Microscope

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Some of the deadliest viruses and bacteria known to mankind -- Ebola, anthrax, smallpox and the plague -- are housed on American soil in facilities known as Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 labs. But concern is growing about the safety of these labs following last week's alarming report by a congressional panel that predicts terrorists are "likely" to deploy biological or nuclear weapons in the next five years.

And the greatest bio-terror concern appears to be whether America"s BSL-4 facilities could be the source of a first strike.

That vulnerability came to light in an incendiary October report from the Government Accountability Office that revealed inadequate security systems at two of five BSL-4 facilities inspected, though the Centers for Disease Control disputes the findings.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, only five such labs existed. But after Sept. 11, the Bush administration -- fearing terrorists next might turn to bio-attacks -- expanded the BSL-4 program, focusing on cures and detection. Now 15 BSL-4 federal, academic and private facilities are located around the country, and another dozen or so are in various stages of planning or construction.

And, the incoming Obama administration appears to be willing to expand the program.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he's committed to preventing a bio-terror attack, and to accelerating the development and production of new vaccines and cures, though he's offered few specifics.

In a campaign speech in July, Obama discussed al Qaeda's interest in acquiring biological weapons and his commitment to protecting against biological threats and building a public health system equipped for crisis.

"It's time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bio-terror," he said. "That's why we need to invest in new vaccines, to reduce the risk posed by those who would use disease as a weapon."

But some critics say the country's most dangerous biological threats could come from within.

"The United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists," stated the congressionally chartered commission's report.

Critics also say BSL-4 oversight is a concern, and point to a complicated and confusing web of government agencies, including Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and its many offshoots, Health and Human Services, and the departments of Transportation and Agriculture.

No single organization is in charge, and across-the-board BSL-4 safety regulations are minimal; security decisions are up to the individual laboratories or the agencies that fund them.

Spotlighting the concern are the 2001-2002 anthrax attacks that terrorized the country, which the Justice Department labeled an inside job carried out by a microbiologist working at the Army's main bio-defense facility at Fort Detrick, Md., a Level 4 lab. Critics cite this as proof that a domestic terrorist could pose a huge biological threat to American citizens.

At the brand new Galveston National Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch, BSL-4 access will be granted to students, professors (visiting and tenured) and research assistants -- plus approximately 30 police officers on foot patrol, said James LeDuc, the facility's associate director.

He said names "can be run" through the Justice Department database, but they'll be flagged only if they're on a government watch list.

One name who would have passed such a screening, however, is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national and MIT- and Brandeis-educated microbiologist and alleged al Qaeda operative now in U.S. custody. Arrested in Afghanistan in July while in possession of biological agents, Siddiqui finished her Ph.D. in microbiology in America years before she appeared on any government watch list.

The possible scenarios are many and they are frightening, and even Galveston's financiers concede risk.

"The research that's being done looks at antidotes and new types of preventions and vaccines, to ward off anthrax, smallpox, the plague -- several very severe agents that could cause quite a bit of hell if ever exposed or in the wrong hands," said CDC spokesman Von Roebuck. "There's always the potential for something to go wrong."

Still, many say the benefits of BSL-4 labs outweigh the risks.

"What's being done or will be in these labs is going to have a huge impact on infectious diseases in general and not just national defense," said Rona Hirschberg, Ph.D., a senior program officer at the National Institutes of Health who is overseeing the development of the Galveston and Boston BSL-4 facilities. "We're talking about a whole new ballgame. We'll be safer and more secure."

Many scientists say the expected nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to be secretary of heath and human services is an encouraging sign that their work will be taken seriously, because Daschle was a target of the 2001-2002 anthrax attacks.

The spate of recent congressional Level 4-related reports may pressure Obama to address security issues, but some in the bio-research community are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"With the new administration there's a possibility," said Rutgers University biochemist Richard Ebright. "Who knows what will happen?"