Weapons of Mass Destruction: Biological
26 February 2003
At the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, officials are quietly retreating from a pledge made in 2001 that their BSL4 facility will not conduct classified work and will be "wide open and above board". That standard, which UTMB used in public meetings and on its website, has been downgraded to apply only to its "current plans". Future work, outside researchers granted access to its labs, and new laboratory spaces are under no such transparency commitment.
There is also biosafety accident history that has not been presented to the public. One of UTMB's lead researchers formerly directed a Yale University lab where faulty equipment and inadequate safety measures resulted in a researcher being infected with Brazilian Hemorrhagic Fever (sabia virus). The infected scientist did not report the accident, in which a liquid containing a high concentration of sabia was aerosolized. The severity of the accident and the infection were not detected by lab management for several days, during which the virus was released outside the containment zone. Sabia is usually spread by rodents and is not believed to be human-to-human transmissible, however, some closely-related arenaviruses (a UTMB specialty) can be spread from person to person. The infected scientist was successfully treated after showing symptoms. The lab director left Yale shortly after the incident.
"UTMB is propping up a transparency façade through carefully crafted statements that don't mean what they sound like. A careful look at UTMB's words betrays a sad slide toward secrecy," says Edward Hammond, Director of the Sunshine Project, a biological weapons watchdog in Austin, TX, "Most of all, I am concerned about how the behavior of UCD and UTMB will impact biological weapons control. The international system to prevent these weapons relies on transparency, on the ability of an informed public to judge the nature and intent of biodefense experiments. This security seems to be an afterthought for these institutions. They are instead preoccupied with public image and scientific rivalries, threatening control of biological weapons with their petty arrogance."
The US Department of Energy's proposals to construct and operate biowarfare agent facilities inside its nuclear weapons labs poses an additional, very serious threat to US compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Inside the DOE bio-facilities classified research on bio-agents would be conducted inside classified nuclear weapons development centers - the antithesis of the openness on which the watchdogs insist.
The "No Secrets" Pledge Non-profit biodefense watchdogs are calling on biodefense labs to make a "no secrets" pledge that includes specific transparency elements. So far, they have contacted three proposed BSL4 biodefense laboratories - UCD, UTMB, and (today) Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, MT. Elements of the pledge, to be made in writing, include a commitment to not conduct classified research (or permit it in their facilities) and to operate completely transparent biosafety committees, the groups that review proposed projects. So far, none have responded. In the coming weeks, the watchdogs will contact more of the three dozen institutions across the US who are seeking new or substantially upgraded hot zone facilities. These include Boston University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which both are seeking BSL4 facilities. Copies of the letters sent to labs are available at http://www.sunshine-project.org/biodefense/openletters.html
An Open Letter to the Leadership of the University of Texas Medical Branch Center for Biodefense
18 February 2003
Dr. C.J. Peters
Department of Microbiology & Immunology and Pathology
Center for Biodefense
University of Texas Medical Branch
Keiller Building, Room 3.152
Galveston, Texas 77555-0609
By fax and electronic mail
Dear Dr. Peters,
Among the most important and urgent issues raised by the expansion of biodefense research capacity within the United States is ensuring full public transparency of BSL-3 and 4 laboratories conducting this research. Secrecy in research on biological weapons agents is dangerous for many reasons. It prevents local communities from understanding the activities of laboratories and what dangers they may pose, including domestic terrorism, accidents, and other dangerous missteps, such as the recent one involving plague samples at Texas Tech University, another institution that seeks a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory for biodefense research, and a UTMB partner in its pursuit of a Regional Center of Excellence.
Secrecy is indicative of possible prohibited activity at any facility handling biological weapons agents. When biodefense experiments operate under wraps, our own citizens and other countries, some suspicious of the United States, are left guessing as to the nature of experiments conducted, potentially triggering a destructive cycle of ever more provocative biodefense experiments. In fact, this process may already be underway, further bending the already stressed lines between offensive and defensive research.
While the United States has renounced biological weapons and ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), in 2001 it unilaterally blocked the creation of a multilateral inspection system for laboratories such as the UTMB Center for Biodefense. The decision of the United States to reject international declaration of its biodefense activities and not allow inspections of biodefense laboratories angered even our closest allies, and has increased the burden on organizations such as ours, who seek safety and security in the midst of a deteriorating arms control situation.
The US sabotage of the BWC Verification Protocol was shortly followed by dramatic reports of secret and highly provocative US activities, including the construction of an anthrax production plant in Nevada, the genetic engineering of anthrax to evade existing vaccine protections, and the manufacture of biological submunition (bomblet) prototypes. While these experiments are described as defensive, a number of experts in biological weapons control believe that US rejection of the declaration and inspection of biodefense facilities is, in fact, due to new, classified US programs that violate the BWC. Though your institution may give a good faith pledge to not conduct research that could be construed as offensive, conducting any secret research levels suspicion upon your institution. Furthermore, secrecy makes it substantially easier to compartmentalize research projects, allowing scientists to proceed without accepting responsibility for the end product. This is what occurred within Divisions of the Manhattan project that allowed for the creation of the atom bomb.
We understand that the UTMB Center for Biodefense does not propose to conduct biological weapons experiments that violate law. In the context of US rejection of inspections and conduct of classified experiments with biological weapon agents, however, greater assurances must be available to citizens and the international public.
Prior to groundbreaking of the BSL-4 facility, in July 2001, you addressed a UTMB Town Meeting to describe the activities of the then-proposed laboratory. At this meeting, you stated that "We won't be doing anything classified or secret. It will be wide open and above board." The important commitment not only assured the public that UTMB would not engage in classified research; but also that all activities in its laboratories would be transparent - "wide open and above board" - with full details available to the public.
On 16 September 2002, the Sunshine Project wrote to UTMB seeking written reiteration of your public pledge. It took two and half months for UTMB to produce a short reply. In fact, UTMB did not respond at all until several letters had been sent, including copies to UT System management and an indication that the Sunshine Project was prepared to address this issue with journalists.
In its unacceptably delayed response UTMB stated "we at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have no plans for classified research projects in the existing labs or in the BSL4 laboratories under construction." This statement abandons - even negates - UTMB's prior public commitment. It does not contain a categorical pledge of no classified work, instead reducing the commitment so it applies only to UTMB's current "plans" (as of that time). Nor does UTMB's letter contain any commitment of transparency that applies to outside researchers granted access to UTMB facilities. Nor does the statement clearly address activities in additional new laboratory space recently proposed to NIAID.
In light of UTMB's backpedaling and the deterioration of international confidence in the nature of research conducted in the US biodefense program, public trust and accountability must be established through a more explicit and unequivocal commitment.
We therefore call upon you, as Director of the UTMB Center for Biodefense, to commit your laboratory, in writing, to the following safeguards:
1. That under no circumstances will any classified research be conducted by any UTMB Center for Biodefense researcher or any person granted access to your laboratory;
2. That the UTMB Center for Biodefense will maintain a fully transparent Biosafety Committee that will review and (dis)approve all projects to be conducted in the BL3 and BL4 facilities, and that all Biosafety Committee documentation will be made concurrently available to the entire public, and that any member of the public will have the right to attend all portions of all committee meetings;
3. That the UTMB Center for Biodefense will maintain an online or publicly-inspectable record of all experiments conducted in the BL3/BL4 facilities to include the names of the investigators, a copy of the research proposal, and a detailed description of the procedures conducted, including results and the scientific names and quantities of all agent(s) utilized including, when applicable, descriptions of any transformants used.
4. That the UTMB Center for Biodefense will maintain an online or publicly-inspectable record of all agents entering or exiting the lab and an up-to-date account of all organisms, and quantities thereof, present in the laboratory;
5. That in order to promote public understanding of its activities and to ensure public health, the UTMB Center for Biodefense will maintain an online or publicly-inspectable record of the complete vaccination status of all persons with access to the laboratory.
Your laboratory is one of more than three dozen biodefense BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs presently proposed for construction or upgrading in the United States. The undersigned organizations are seeking similar commitments from other laboratory proponents. By making this pledge in writing and without qualifications, the UTMB Center for Biodefense can restore the trust it was working to establish before abandoning its transparency commitment.
Please send your response to Edward Hammond, Director, The Sunshine Project, 101 West 6th St #607, Austin, TX 78701, fax: (512) 494-0545.
Steve Erickson, Executive Director Citizens Education Project
Salt Lake City, UT
Mary Wulff, Coordinator
Coalition for a Safe Lab
Greg Mello, Director
Los Alamos Study Group
Santa Fe, NM
Colin King, Research Director
Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
Santa Fe, NM
Robert M. Gould, MD, President
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D.,M.P.H. Executive Director
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Edward Hammond, Director
The Sunshine Project
Marylia Kelley, Executive Director
Andrew Lichterman, Program Director
Western States Legal Foundation
cc: Dr. Mark G. Yudof, Chancellor
Dr. James C. Guckian, Acting Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs
Dr. John D. Stobo, President, UTMB