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Detection and Diplomacy for Biological Defense


When your desk is five blocks from the world’s largest terrorism disaster site, and national guardsmen in camouflage fatigues and respirator masks pass by your window at lunch time, it’s hard to keep your mind off the threat of biological weapons. Like journalists across the country, we were feeling a need this month to find some meaning in our work by relating our own beat to what took place on September 11.

Genomics research in biological defense is actually a topic that’s been on our to-do list for some time. Now that it’s become painfully clear how real the threat of a biological weapons attack is, the topic is timely. But we’re kicking ourselves for not having tackled it sooner.

Reporting in our usual on-the-scene style was virtually impossible this month. Public sector researchers across federal agencies refused interviews, and their media relations departments were too overwhelmed to handle our requests. We had hopes of profiling a lab that is conducting genomics and proteomics research at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, but higher-ups put the kibosh on that plan. “Our priority now is national security,” a scientist (and GT subscriber) there says he was told. Even several companies with defense-related contracts declined to go on the record. Some had been warned by DOD to keep their work under wraps. Others didn’t want to appear to be profiting from the fear of further terrorism, especially not at the same time they and other corporations were making charitable donations to efforts to rescue and recover victims of the current attack.

That sentiment is understandable. But in fact, there are a lot of people placing their hope in this industry these days. Getting the word out about your work could bring some reassurance to those asking, “What are we doing to prepare for biological weapons attack?” Could TIGR’s sequence of the anthrax genome enable development of technologies that would detect the germ’s presence early enough to prevent a deadly outbreak? Will Cepheid’s biodetectors protect troops on the ground or civilians in subways? Unfortunately, we’ve only been able to brush the surface with our coverage. We promise to revisit the topic when policies are more amenable.

For the Sake of Security

Genomics researcher Chris Aston, an adjunct assistant professor at the New York University Medical School who authored a report on biological weapons detection for the October issue of IEEE Spectrum, says he believes individual terrorists lack the scientific sophistication to successfully culture and desseminate biological agents. But, Aston says, that’s not to say terrorists couldn’t acquire them from one of the 24 states that US intelligence suspects is developing or harboring them.

That’s why Aston has made it a personal mission to push for diplomacy. “It would be better if there were no risk of an attack at all,” he says. “It’s difficult to make such weapons, but we should pursue enforcement of the Biological Weapons Convention.”

The Fifth Biological Weapons Convention review conference will commence in Geneva on the 19th of this month. Though the US is among 143 states that have signed the treaty, it is the one holdout against provisions that would make it enforceable. Citing the risk of industrial espionage, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America had pressured the Bush administration against signing on to protocols that would subject US pharmaceutical and biotech companies’ research labs to inspections. In July, the US rejected the last draft of the protocols. The State Department said it would have put “national security and confidential business information at risk.”

The US added, however, that it would spend the following months developing other ideas and different approaches to strengthening the convention. As the US responds to the events of September, asking regular citizens to sacrifice privacy for the sake of national security, is it too much to ask pharmaceutical companies to do the same?

— Adrienne J. Burke, Editor in Chief

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