NYT : Debate Is Revived Over U.S. Efforts on Bioterrorism

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Debate Is Revived Over U.S. Efforts on Bioterrorism

By ERIC LIPTON and SCOTT SHANE | August 3, 2008

WASHINGTON — Until the anthrax attacks of 2001, Bruce E. Ivins was one of just a few dozen American bioterrorism researchers working with the most lethal biological pathogens, almost all at high-security military laboratories.

Today, there are hundreds of such researchers in scores of laboratories at universities and other institutions around the United States, preparing for the next bioattack.

But the revelation that F.B.I. investigators believe that the anthrax attacks were carried out by Dr. Ivins, an Army biodefense scientist who committed suicide last week after he learned that he was about to be indicted for murder, has already re-ignited a debate: Has the unprecedented boom in biodefense research made the country less secure by multiplying the places and people with access to dangerous germs?

“We are putting America at more risk, not less risk,” said Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, chairman of a House panel that has investigated recent safety lapses at biolabs.

F.B.I. investigators have long speculated that the motive for the attacks, if carried out by a biodefense insider like Dr. Ivins, might have been to draw public attention to a dire threat, attracting money and prestige to a once-obscure field.

If that was the motive, it succeeded — for example, an experimental vaccine Dr. Ivins had spent years working on moved from the laboratory to a proposed billion-dollar federal contract after the attacks, which killed five people.

Almost $50 billion in federal money has been spent since 2001 to build new laboratories, develop vaccines and stockpile drugs.

Patents Dr. Ivins held on the research might have proved personally profitable. An anthrax vaccine he helped invent was slated to be added to the nation’s vaccine stockpile through an $877 million contract awarded in 2004. But the deal collapsed in late 2006 after the contractor, VaxGen of Brisbane, Calif., failed to meet deadlines. VaxGen, in a licensing agreement with the Army to produce the vaccine, had listed two patents held by Dr. Ivins and his colleague, but it made no mention of compensation planned for their work.

Despite the insistence of Dr. Ivins’s lawyer and some of the scientist’s colleagues that he was innocent, officials at the Justice Department and the F.B.I. on Saturday appeared confident that they had the right man, though they said they were still weighing how and when to seek an end to the grand jury investigation. “That’s not a decision we’re going to make lightly,” one Justice Department official said Saturday. “There won’t be a rush to judgment.”

Nearly seven years have passed without another biological attack, which has reduced the sense of urgency about the bioterrorist threat, even among some specialists.

“I think it’s an important risk, but frankly I’m more concerned about bombs and guns, which are easily available and can be very destructive,” said Randall S. Murch, a former F.B.I. scientist who has studied ways to trace a bioterrorist attack to its source.

Federal officials say they are convinced that the surge in spending has brought real gains.

“Across the spectrum of biothreats we have expanded our capacity significantly," said Craig Vanderwagen, an assistant secretary at Health and Human Services who oversees the biodefense effort. Systems to detect an attack, investigate it and respond with drugs, vaccines and cleanup are all hugely improved, Mr. Vanderwagen said. "We can get pills in the mouth."

Supporters of the spending surge cite studies that project apocalyptic tolls from a large-scale bioattack. One 2003 study led by a Stanford scholar, for instance, found that just two pounds of anthrax spores dropped over an American city could kill more than 100,000 people, even if antibiotic distribution began quickly.

And there is ample evidence that Qaeda leaders have shown interest in using biological weapons. Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian-born Qaeda biochemist who trained in the United States, spent several months in 2001 trying to cultivate anthrax in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

But the proliferation of biodefense research laboratories presents real threats, too, Congressional investigators recently warned.

More people in more places handling toxic agents create more opportunities for an accident or intentional misuse by an insider, Keith Rhodes, an investigator with the Government Accountability Office, said at a Congressional hearing in October.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence community were the ones who were most concerned about it,” Mr. Rhodes testified.

There also is insufficient federal oversight of biodefense facilities to make sure the laboratories follow security rules and report accidents that might threaten lab workers or, in an extreme case, lead to a release that might endanger the public, Mr. Rhodes testified.

In effect the government may be providing the tools that a would-be terrorist could use, said Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University biochemist and vocal critic of the federal surge in biodefense spending.

“One well-placed student, technician or senior scientist — no cost, with the salary being provided courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer — and no risk, no difficulty,” Mr. Ebright said. “That is all it takes.”

Heightening the concern has been a string of accidents at certain new or expanded biodefense laboratories, several of which were not properly reported to authorities when they first took place.

One of the first accidents was in Dr. Ivins’s lab in late 2001, when he and his colleagues were aiding the federal investigation of the anthrax attacks and spores accidentally spilled outside the secure area.

Dr. Ivins failed to report the incident to his superiors and instead tried to disinfect the contaminated areas, according to an Army report, which concluded, “Adherence to institute safety procedures by laboratory personnel is lax.”

In early 2006, at Texas A&M University in College Station, a worker was infected with Brucella bacteria, a pathogen common in livestock that can cause flulike symptoms such as fever, fatigue and joint pain, although it is rarely fatal. Later, three researchers at the same lab were infected with Q fever, another cattle-borne disease that can cause serious but generally not fatal illness in humans.

After the two incidents belatedly became public, federal officials temporarily shut down the laboratory, citing a series of safety shortcomings, such as unapproved experiments and staff given access to the dangerous agents even though they had not been approved to handle them.

Apart from the threat from insiders, some public health experts believe money being used to study obscure pathogens that are not a major disease problem could be better directed to study known killers like influenza or AIDS.

Partly in response to this criticism, government officials now often talk about how strengthening the systems necessary to respond to a terror attack would also prepare the country for a natural epidemic like avian flu.

As experts debate threats, nervous neighbors of expanding biodefense facilities have repeatedly rallied to try to defeat them. At Fort Detrick, where Dr. Ivins worked, some residents have opposed the construction of a “national biodefense campus” slated to include a new building to house the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Mr. Ivins worked for many years before his suicide. Three other new labs on the campus will be operated by the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Agriculture.

Proponents say that clustering the laboratories on a military base will encourage safe scientific collaboration and save money through sharing of some facilities.

The build-up, and the related surge in research, has brought some important advances, federal officials argue, such as a promising new experimental vaccines or therapies to treat smallpox or Ebola virus.

The country now also has a greatly expanded stockpile of vaccines and drugs to treat anyone exposed in a future attack, including enough antibiotics to treat 40 million Americans who might be exposed to anthrax and nearly 5 million bottles of a special potassium iodide liquid that help protect infants from harm caused by nuclear fallout.

Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said he was convinced that the increased spending has left the nation better prepared for a future attack, without creating significant new vulnerabilities.

“You can never say that the system is 100 percent secure,” he said. “But the research ethic today is one of much greater disciple and focus on security than was true prior to the anthrax attacks.”

Representative Stupak, though, remains unconvinced.

“You have all these universities tripping over each other trying to be high level biosecurity labs,” he said. “What the nation gets is a very expensive bill, less security and a greater risk to the surrounding communities.”

Eric Lichtblau and William J. Broad contributed reporting for this article.