The new coronavirus has plunged the world into a pandemic crisis, and has resurrected years-long debates and worrying questions about US biodefense policy. These include the rapid proliferation of high-containment germ labs since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and ongoing governance problems with these labs.
Before 1990, there were only two BSL-4 (Biosafety Level 4) labs in the US, one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the other at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
After 9/11, the US opened 10 more, and in a 2007 report by US Government Accountability Office (GAO) chief technologist Keith Rhodes, he observed that “a major proliferation of high-containment BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place in the United States,” with the country’s 1,300 plus “high containment” germ labs, in essence, policing themselves.
This is disconcerting for Americans who live in states that host these labs. As biosecurity experts Filippa Lentzos of Kings College London and Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University in the US state of Virginia have argued, the proliferation of labs and scientists working on dangerous pathogens is adding to our collective risk. These include accidental releases, worker infections, theft and insider threats.
The most famous insider-threat example occurred in 2001, when one of the scientists at USAMRIID committed an anthrax bio-terror attack by placing the deadly agent in the mail, which killed five, infected 17 and put 20,000 Americans on antibiotics.
Now with a renewed interest in the field of bio-terror and biodefense, US state governors and members of Congress have a vested interest in partnering with Big Pharma to obtain lucrative federal contracts to create the “Silicon Valley for biodefense” in their own states.
However, while these labs are spread out geographically, there is no central authority that regulates them or monitors their proliferation.
Source: Science magazine 2007
Questions then arise of whether building more labs will help us fight outbreaks, or if we Americans are building too may labs in too many places. And rather than having the labs conduct self-policing, who should have responsibility for regulating them?
These questions are all the more pressing given the history of safety lapses in US germ labs.