The dystopian British sci-fi film 28 Days Later opens with animal rights activists breaking into the Cambridge Primate Research facility to free chimpanzees used in a secret weapons program.
Terrified by the intrusion, a scientist warns the raiders that the chimps are infected with a genetically-modified pathogen. Ignoring his admonition, the chimps are let loose from their cages and immediately attack everyone in sight, unleashing a plague of unimaginable proportions.
Despite the film’s fanciful scenario (with animal rights’ campaigners clearly focused in the cross-hairs) this grim, cautionary tale does contain a kernel of truth. While marauding gangs of flesh-eating zombies haven’t invaded our cities, a subtler threat looms on the horizon.
The sixth anniversary of the murder of British bioweapons expert Dr. David Kelly on July 17, 2003, lifted the lid on more than government lies that smoothed the way for the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq; it exposed the shadowy world of germ warfare research in Britain and the United States.
Along with the 2001 anthrax attacks in America that murdered five people and exposed some 10,000 others to a weaponized form of the bacteria, Kelly’s death under highly questionable circumstances focused attention on the West’s bioweapons establishment. For a fleeting instant, all eyes were trained on an international network of medical researchers, corporate grifters and Pentagon weaponeers busy as proverbial bees experimenting with deadly microorganisms.
And then as they say, things went dark; as more bodies piled up, cases were “closed” and the money kept on flowing…
An Expansive Bioweapons-Industrial Complex
The production of biological weapons were ostensibly banned when the United States signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1975. However, the absence of any formal verification regime limited, some would argue purposely so, the effectiveness of the treaty from the get-go.
Indeed, a giant loop hole in the BWC allows for the production of “small quantities” of pestilential agents “for medical and defensive purposes.” Note however, it is is not the production of said agents that are prohibited as such but rather, their transformation into “weapons, equipment or means of delivery … for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”
And with the September 11 and anthrax attacks as a pretext, the United States embarked on a systematic and reckless program to expand research into the creation of prohibited weapons systems. Along with renewed interest in these dodgy projects, now euphemistically dubbed “biodefense” to avoid breaching the BWC, came a huge increase in funding as new facilities are built and older ones “upgraded.” A May 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that overall government spending has “increased from $690 million in FY2001 to $5.4 billion in FY2008.”
According to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation since the 2001 terrorist attacks “the U.S. government has spent or allocated nearly $50 billion among 11 federal departments and agencies to address the threat of biological weapons. For Fiscal Year 2009 (FY2009), the Bush Administration proposes an additional $8.97 billion in bioweapons-related spending, approximately $2.5 billion (39%) more than the amount that Congress appropriated for FY2008.”
The bulk of these funds according to the Center have gone to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA ($31.5 billion), the Defense Department ($11.8 billion), Department of Homeland Security ($3.3 billion) and Project BioShield ($5.5 billion).
Yet according to numerous studies, deadly pathogens are far more likely to spread like wildfire as the result of a laboratory accident than an attack by germ-wielding terrorists. As I write, labs with Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) facilities are sprouting up like poisonous mushrooms across the United States.
A BSL-3 lab designation means that a facility is equipped to handle indigenous or exotic agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease after inhalation. Examples of substances handled by a BSL-3 lab include tuberculosis, anthrax, West Nile virus, SARS, salmonella, and yellow fever.
On the other hand, a BSL-4 lab handles the most deadly pathogens known to humankind; in other words, aerosol-transmitted infectious agents that cause fatal diseases for which no known treatments are available. Examples of substances handled by a BSL-4 lab include: Marburg virus, Ebola virus, Lassa fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
CRS researchers reported that “Non-federal entities have also expanded or constructed additional high-containment laboratories. In addition to the threat of bioterrorism, an increasing awareness of the threat posed by emerging and re-emerging diseases has led to the proliferation of high-containment laboratories internationally, as the technologies used are widely available.”
Shockingly, CRS was unable to determine the exact number of BSL-3 laboratories currently operating in America. However Congress’ research arm said that “the total amount of planned or existent BSL-4 space in the United States has increased by an estimated twelve-fold since 2004.”
Much of this work, conveniently, is being contracted out to private corporations with little or no effective oversight. Among the more prominent firms to have received the federal government’s largesse for BSL-3 and BSL-4 work according to CRS, one finds the “Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, Battelle Memorial Institute, Southern Research Institute, and others.” Indeed, much can be hidden here, including outsourced secret weapons research, under the rubric of “proprietary information” and “intellectual property” of course!
During 2007 hearings before Congress’ Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, committee Chairman Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) said:
These BSL–3 and 4 labs are the facilities where research is conducted on highly infectious viruses and bacteria that can cause injury or death. Some of the world’s most exotic and most dangerous diseases are handled at BSL–3 and 4 labs, including anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease and Ebola fever. The accidental or deliberate release of some of the biological agents handled at these labs could have catastrophic consequences. Yet, as we will hear from the Government Accountability Office, GAO, no single Government agency has the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety and securing of these high-containment labs. However, GAO states there is a major expansion of the number of BSL laboratories is occurring both in United States and abroad but the full extent of that expansion is unknown. (“Germs, Viruses and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, October 4, 2007, Serial No. 110-70, pp. 1-2)
According to Edward Hammond, director of the now-defunct Sunshine Project, some 20,000 people working at more than 400 sites in the U.S. conduct research on organisms that can be used as bioweapons. This represents a tenfold increase in employment at such facilities since the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Using the Freedom of Information Act to pry data from the federal government, Hammond obtained records from a score of university biosafety committees. What he discovered was disturbing to say the least. Plague, anthrax, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, brucellosis and Q fever; these are some of the deadly pathogens that escaped containment through poor safety practices and resulted in the inadvertent sickening of lab workers.
Scientists have warned for years that the more people who handle these toxic substances, the higher the probability that mishaps will occur. Among the more well-publicized incidents, Hammond reported the following:
* Texas A&M University: workers were exposed to Q fever when it escaped containment;
* University of New Mexico: one worker was jabbed with an anthrax-laden needle while another was stuck with a syringe filled with an undisclosed, genetically altered microbe;
* University of Ohio Medical Center: workers are exposed to and infected with Valley Fever;
* University of Chicago: a syringe puncture of a lab worker with an undisclosed substance that required heavy containment, most likely anthrax or plague;
* University of California at Berkeley: workers handled the air-borne toxin Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever without containment. It had been mislabeled as “harmless”.
Amongst the 9,200 extra samples uncovered during the inventory were “bacterial agents that cause plague, anthrax and tularemia; Venezuelan, Eastern and Western equine encephalitis viruses; Rift valley fever virus; Junin virus; Ebola virus; and botulinum neurotoxins.” So much for a “culture of safety”!
Any one of these pathogens should they escape or made to “disappear,” could be transformed into a doomsday weapon.
Designer Genes, Designer Weapons
In Emerging Technologies: Genetic Engineering and Biological Weapons, researcher Edward Hammond described how “Genetic engineering can contribute to offensive BW programs in a variety of ways. With genetic manipulation, classical biowarfare agents such as anthrax or plague may be made more efficient weapons. Barriers to access to agents such as smallpox, Ebola or the Spanish flu are being lowered by genetic and genomic techniques.”
No longer the province of science fiction, recombinant DNA research is being exploited by enterprising corporate grifters for decidedly sinister purposes. Hammond writes that while “access to highly virulent agents and strains is increasingly regulated and restricted,” with lethal toxins such as the smallpox virus “eradicated outside the laboratory more than 20 years ago … it is only a question of time before the artificial synthesis of agents or agent combinations becomes possible.”
The available evidence suggests such work, alarmingly, is advancing at a rapid rate.
In 2002, poliovirus was synthesized by a research team at the University of New York in Stony Brook. Hammond writes that “researchers built poliovirus ‘from scratch’ through chemical synthesis. Starting with the gene sequence of the agent, which is available online, the researchers synthesized virus sequences in the lab and ordered other tailor-made DNA sequences from a commercial source. They then combined them to form the full polio genome. In a last step, the DNA-sequence was brought to life by adding a chemical cocktail that initiated the production of a living, pathogenic virus. The experiment was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).”
While poliovirus is not “well suited” as a bioweapon, “the experiment exemplifies possibilities that generate real problems if similar techniques become applicable to agents such as smallpox.” Hammond averred that in 2002 “such a technique was demonstrated.” Indeed, “the full sequences of at least two different smallpox strains are available in the internet, and most recently a new internet site dedicated to poxvirus genomic sequences has been launched.”
As frightening as the potential for genetically engineering smallpox as a bioweapon, U.S. researchers, led by a Pentagon pathologist “recently began to genetically reconstruct” the dangerous influenza strain responsible for the 1918-1919 pandemic. “In one experiment” Hammond informs us, “a partially reconstructed 1918 virus killed mice, while virus constructs with genes from a contemporary flu virus had hardly any effect.” During the 1918-1919 outbreak some 40 million people died in the global pandemic.
Hammond reports that a sample of lung tissue from a 21-year-old soldier who died in 1918 at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina “yielded what the Army researchers were looking for: intact pieces of viral RNA that could be analysed and sequenced. In a first publication in 1997, nine short fragments of Spanish flu viral RNA were revealed. Due to the rough tissue preparation procedure in 1918, no living virus or complete viral RNA sequences were recovered.”
But far from inhibiting Pentagon researchers, biowarfare proponents were jumping for joy when Army scientists recovered intact pieces of viral RNA that were then subsequently pulled apart and analyzed. By 2002 according to Hammond, “four of the eight viral RNA segments had been completely sequenced, including the two segments that are considered to be of greatest importance for the virulence of the virus.”
Which leads to a queasy sense that perhaps the current outbreak of the H1N1 strain of swine flu may be the result of some mad experiment gone awry. Adrian Gibbs, a prominent Australian scientist who collaborated on research that led to the development of the Tamiflu drug, told Bloomberg News “the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs scientists use to grow viruses and drugmakers use to make vaccines. Gibbs said he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’s origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.”
“The sooner we get to grips with where it’s come from, the safer things might become,” Gibbs told Bloomberg. “‘It could be a mistake’ that occurred at a vaccine production facility or the virus could have jumped from a pig to another mammal or a bird before reaching humans, he said.”
Gibbs is no crank and his claims, at least initially, were taken seriously by the World Health Organization (WHO). Kenji Fukada, WHO’s assistant director-general of health security and environment said the agency is reviewing Gibbs’ report. On the other hand, the American Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta dismissed the findings, deciding there is “no evidence” to support the scientist’s conclusions.
His research is considered credible and the scientist said his analysis is supported by other researchers, including Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis who found “the new strain is the product of two distinct lineages of influenza that have circulated among swine in North America and Europe for more than a decade.”
Gibbs told the financial publication he saw no evidence that “the swine-derived virus was a deliberate, man-made product.” The researcher said, “I don’t think it could be a malignant thing. It’s much more likely that some random thing has put these two viruses together.”
Fukada later said that Gibbs’ proposition “didn’t fit the evidence.” The WHO official added that the organization will need to review Gibbs’ research article when it is published, but he indicated that “it is unlikely to change the experts’ conclusions.”
Perhaps Gibbs is wrong and his findings will be relegated to the sidelines. Having said that however, the danger that H1N1 or some derivative might be weaponized cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Indeed, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine was so-alarmed by the prospect that in 2003 they commented, “the possibility for genetic engineering and aerosol transmission [of influenza] suggests an enormous potential for bioterrorism.” Unsaid, of course, was the gravest threat posed by such dark research may be state terrorism, more specifically, American state terrorism.
If past is prologue, it might be an instructive exercise to take a short detour down memory lane.
One spooky facility that played a key role in America’s Cold War bioweapons programs is the 840-acre Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC). Under the nominal control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Plum Island shared close ties with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md.
According to a series of striking reports by researcher Mark Sanborne, Plum Island’s “spiritual godfather” was none other than one Dr. Erich Traub, “a Nazi scientist with a fascinating history.” Traub spent the pre-war years as a scientific fellow at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton, N.J., “studying bacteriology and virology, while still finding time to hang out at Camp Sigfried, headquarters of the American Nazi movement in Yaphank, Long Island, 30 miles west of Plum Island.”
Citing evidence uncovered by researcher by Michael Christopher Carroll in his exposé Lab 257, when war broke out, Traub returned to Germany and became the head of Insel Riems, the Nazi state’s secret biological warfare research facility located on an island in the Baltic Sea. A fanatical Nazi, Traub tested germ and viral sprays over the occupied Soviet Union “while reporting directly to Heinrich Himmler.”
With a CV such as this one would have expected Traub to have landed in prison or at the end of a rope. Think again!
After the war Traub worked briefly for the Soviets before escaping into the embrace of Operation Paperclip, Washington’s covert employment program for useful Nazi scientists. As Werner von Braun was to rockets, Traub was to germs: He promptly went to work for the Naval Medical Research Institute and gave operational advice to the CIA and the biowarriors at Fort Detrick. Indeed, his detailed description of his work at Insel Riems probably helped inspire the selection of Plum Island by the Army: both the German and U.S. facilities were situated on islands where the prevailing winds blew (mostly) out to sea. (Mark Sanborne, “‘Bionoia’ Part 3: The Mystery of Plum Island: Nazis, Ticks and Weapons of Mass Infection,” World War 4 Report, No. 121, May 1, 2006)
Why then, would America’s biowarriors concern themselves with a disease that “incapacitates but rarely kills” its victims? According to Sanborne, “the logic is brutally simple.” Drawing an analogy between how a wounded soldier puts greater stress on an army than a dead one, “gradually sickening a population places greater economic and social stress on a society than simply killing a limited number of people with a more direct and virulent attack.”
And if such a disease can be transmitted via a natural vector like ticks or mosquitoes that already possess built-in plausible deniability so to speak “and can confuse medical authorities by presenting a broad array of symptoms that mimic other conditions (Bb, like its more famous relative syphilis, has been called the ‘Great Imitator’), then so much the better,” Sanborne wrote.
Carroll discovered during his research that entomologist Dr. Richard Endris and African swine fever team leader Dr. William Hess, traveled to Cameroon and other parts of Africa on “tick-hunting safaris.” By the time the pair had finished their collection, they had reared “over 200,000 hard and soft ticks of multiple species.”
Lab containment practices were cited as “unsafe” by outside consultants who “strongly recommended” the construction of a “modern, approved insectory be undertaken for future research.” (emphasis in original) The pair were fired in 1988 and the tick colony destroyed, but the question remains: were the ticks already out of the bag?
There is also evidence that Plum Island researchers experimented with more than ticks. Carroll averred,
Dr. Endris also conducted experiments with sand flies on Plum Island in 1987 to test transmission of leishmaniasis, a bacterial ailment that if left untreated, has a human mortality rate of almost 100 percent. It is characterized by irregular bouts of fever, substantial weight loss, and swelling of the spleen and liver. The work was performed under contract for Fort Detrick, and serves as another example of a deadly germ warfare agent worked on at Plum Island for the Army, with no public knowledge or public safety precautions taken. (Michael Christopher Carroll, Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Germ Laboratory, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, p. 24)
Fear not, lab spokesperson Donald W. Tighe told the paper “the virus had remained within the laboratory’s sealed biocontainment area. He said there had been no risk to humans or animals inside or outside the laboratory.” An investigation “is continuing.” Alarmingly, in 1991, Hurricane Bob knocked out power on the island for several hours and disabled the air pressure systems that contained the viruses. At the time, lab spokespersons assured the public “they were safe.”
Plans are afoot to close the facility. Global Security Newswire reported in February that the Department of Homeland Security is planning a new, $450 million facility to be built on the Kansas State University campus.
However, The New York Times revealed that “additional costs” would bring the total to about $630 million.” The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBADF) would have “safety built into every square inch,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured critics.
Coming to a City Near You!
Despite lax oversight and a veritable $50 billion ocean of cash washing over universities, corporations and the military, since 2002 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent billions on the construction of new BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities. More are planned, including those already under construction in major U.S. cities.
One Boston resident, alarmed by the prospect that Boston University Medical Center officials were building “a biological defense laboratory in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods” told the Los Angeles Times, “We heard anthrax and Roxbury-South End,” she recalled. “Then we heard Ebola. The last thing we heard was bubonic plague. We looked at each other and said, ‘No way are they bringing that … into our community.'”
Seven years later, the $198-million lab complex stands completed between an apartment building and a flower market. But state and federal lawsuits by anxious residents, backed by skeptical scientists, have blocked the opening until late next year at the earliest.
The battle marks the first major setback in the vast growth since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of labs authorized to research the world’s most dangerous diseases. It also underscores a growing debate over the safety and security of such labs–and whether so many are needed. (Bob Drogin, “Biodefense Labs Make Bad Neighbors, Residents Say,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2009)
According to a 2008 University of California budget document the Board of Regents recommended the allocation of $3,998,000 for a project to renovate and “upgrade” the existing laboratory facility “for programs that require Bio-safety Level 3 (BSL3) containment” on the U.C. Davis campus.
With students and workers reeling under draconian state budget cuts, out-of-control fee hikes and mass layoffs, why would the State of California waste nearly $4 million for such a facility? “The BSL3 space is needed” we are informed, “for research programs utilizing infectious and pathogenic organisms.” Indeed, “the facility would be designed to accommodate research studies involving in-vitro experimentation utilizing infected avian, murine, arthropod hosts, and the development of genetic markers for a wide range of disease agents that require BSL3 containment.”
But as with most of America’s bioweapons-industrial complex, illicit and illegal research is carried out with little or no oversight.
The antinuclear Bay Area watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs (TVC), has been monitoring and protesting the expansion of America’s nuclear weapons complex for decades, with a particular focus on the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
An ubiquitous “public-private partner” of the U.S. national security state, LLNL is a “limited liability corporation” comprised of five partners: the University of California, Bechtel, BWX Technologies, Washington Group International and Battelle–all heavy-hitters in the biotech, construction, defense, energy, nuclear and security worlds.
According to TVC, the group obtained government documents as a result of Freedom of Information Act litigation demonstrating that LLNL had violated federal regulations and had carried out “restricted experiments” that were discovered by the Centers of Disease Control inspection in August 2005. CDC, the Department of Energy and LLNL covered up the inspector’s report.
Restricted experiments are experiments utilizing recombinant DNA that involve the deliberate transfer of a drug resistance trait to select agents that are not known to acquire the trait naturally. Select agents, which include anthrax and plague, are biological agents and toxins having the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.
Because of the dangers involved in transferring drug resistance to select agents, restricted experiments require approval from the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Livermore Lab did not have that approval, but ran the experiments anyway. (“Livermore Lab Caught Conducting Illegal Restricted Bio-Experiments,” Tri-Valley CAREs, Press Release, May 26, 2009)
LLNL has opened a BSL-3 facility and is planning to experiment with pathogens that can be used as offensive weapons. Activities contemplated include, “aerosolizing (spraying) pathogens such as plague, tularemia and Q fever, in addition to anthrax. Moreover, government documents disclose that planned experiments in the BSL-3 include genetic modification and potentially novel manipulation of viruses, prions and other agents.”
What of LLNL’s close partner, Battelle Memorial? According to a blurb on their web site, the firm’s national security brief includes what they euphemistically call “vaccine and therapeutic product development.” Battelle “specialists” at their Aberdeen, Maryland research facility (adjacent to USAMRIID’s Ft. Detrick bioweapons complex) “study aerosolized microorganisms that may be possibly used in terrorist attacks.”
Indeed, Ft, Detrick is currently undergoing the largest expansion in its history. Investigative journalists Bob Coen and Eric Nadler revealed in Dead Silence: Fear and Terror on the Anthrax Trail that the recently-opened “National Biodefense Analysis Countermeasures Center … contains heavily guarded and hermetically sealed chambers in which scientists will simulate terrorist attacks and use lethal germs and toxins.”
Coen and Nadler aver, “this, remember, is the facility that officialdom claims was the source of the only significant germ war attack on US soil.” Conveniently enough, “Battelle has the $250 million contract to manage the operation.”
But the journalists uncovered more, much more than insipid government pronouncements on “biodefense.” During a interview with constitutional law scholar Francis Boyle, a University of Illinois professor and acknowledged expert on the Biological Weapons Convention, Boyle told the investigative sleuths that the “Pentagon is ready to wage anthrax war.”
“Look at the Department of Defense’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program Report to Congress, April 2007, page 22, Table 2-5. Information Systems Modernization Strategy, Mid FY09-13,” Boyle told Coen and Nadler.
“Here you find a study” Boyle asserted, that estimates the “human effects from a 5,000 weapon worldwide strike; to predict fatalities and incapacitation, both initial and delayed and to accommodate population moves including area evacuations or sheltering in place. Now how does that strike you?”
Sounds like business as usual!
© Copyright Tom Burghardt, Antifascist Calling…, 2009
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