Earlier this year, during an audit of the nation's largest Level-4 BioSafety Lab (BSL-4) at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, 9,220 vials of ebola, anthrax, botulinum, equine encephalitis virus, and other deadly germs were discovered in the proverbial dusty old storage area. No one even knew the vials existed and thus no one knows for sure whether any are missing.
But not to worry, according to officials. The vials were old and lost long before new documentation procedures were put in place. Besides, the lab is being expanded and updated with the latest security devices. Such reassuring mantras resound after every oil and chemical spill, radioactive discharge from nuclear power plant (more frequent than generally realized), black-market uranium sale, and mishandled nuclear bomb: "It may seem dangerous, but trust us - there wasn't enough poison to hurt a fly and besides, we're sure we recovered everything."
Very likely - hopefully - at Fort Detrick they did. But the most important question remains unanswered: can any BSL-4, the labs with the deadliest, often highly contagious, bacteria and viruses, ever be truly fail-safe? After all, at some point that old storeroom in Fort Detrick was state-of-the-art. Human error applies not only to daily procedures, but to equipment that always seems so pristine when new. Proponents of BSL-4s argue that without these research labs we stand defenseless against a natural outbreak of disease or bio-terrorist attack. And, they say, the labs are so safe that the chances of a disease-spreading breach approach zero.
The problem is, neither of these assertions is strictly true. Vaccines against Level-4 Ebola and Marburg viruses have been developed in Level-2 labs by inserting their DNA into non-pathogenic viruses that can trigger immune responses just as definitively as the deadly pathogen. Scientists can therefore develop vaccines against deadly bacteria and viruses without actually handling the germs themselves. And the Level-4 labs may very well make our world more dangerous rather than safer and more secure. However modern and up-to-date a laboratory, it is still subject to human error, violence, neglect, and systemic breakdown. The Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in Great Britain in 2007 was due, according to the British government's inquiry, to "poor training and incompetence" and a "creeping degradation of standards", while the 2001 outbreak was attributed by the government to an employee who smuggled out a vial of FMD from his lab.
"Creeping degradation" is probably responsible for most industrial and infrastructural accidents. The case of Plum Island off the northeast coast of Long Island, New York, home to a now-closed Level-4 lab, illustrates the problem. Many believe Plum Island responsible for Lyme Disease, borne by deer swimming five miles from the island to the Connecticut coast near Lyme where the first outbreaks occurred. Lab 257 by Michael Carroll details how protocols and procedures at Plum Island eventually unraveled. Countless small oversights and flaws in equipment, procedures, and human judgment tend to build up over time to generate distinct vulnerabilities until an otherwise controllable opportunistic event spins out of control.
It is often claimed that BSL-4s have a flawless safety record, although the 9,220 recovered vials seem to undermine that claim. More importantly, only two Level-4 labs have operated in the United States until recently and their documentation has been in disarray, as Fort Detrick's spokesperson admitted to explain how the vials went missing.
There is, in fact, no real documentation that BSL-4 labs have been operating safely. As with the oft-ignored low-level radioactive releases from nuclear power plants, small accidents can be ignored or covered up; it takes a major disaster to enter public consciousness. Recently, the city of Boston had to admit that the news of the infection of three BSL-2 lab workers in a lab had been suppressed by the lab and city officials. Mayor Menino assured us that if the public had been in danger, they would have told us sooner. Granted, Level-2 labs are not built to be foolproof and the diseases harbored there are far milder than in BSL-4s, but when infection at a BSL-2 is kept under wraps, would a more serious threat have been publicized, especially with no real emergency response mechanism in place in most communities?
According to the Sunshine Project, "Three Texas A&M University biodefense researchers were infected with the biological weapons agent Q Fever in 2006. The infections were confirmed in April of that year, but Texas A&M officials did not report them to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as required by law. Instead, Texas A&M officials covered the infections up until now, illegally failing to disclose them despite freedom of information requests dating back to October 2006." This was in addition to a brucella infection at the lab, news of which was also withheld from the public. In response to these events, the Center for Disease Control ordered the lab to shut down its bioweapons research, citing - in a detailed report issued August 31, 2007 - a host of violations of basic safety protocols at the lab. Other accidents at BSL-3s have recently occurred at the University of New Mexico (anthrax, 2003 and unidentified pathogen in 2004); Medical University of Ohio (2004, Level-3 Valley Fever); University of Chicago (2005, Level 3, possibly anthrax or plague); and UC Berkeley (2005, Level 3 aerosolized, weaponized Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever). From 2005-2006, University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) researchers made and manipulated copies of the Ebola virus genome even though the federal government stipulates that such research must take place at a BSL-4. (It should be noted that Level-3 pathogens can be every bit as dangerous as Level 4s and include many of the more contagious germs; it's just they've been shown to respond to antibiotics). All these cases occurred after 2001, when the through-the-mail anthrax attacks supposedly led to tighter security and more sophisticated protocols at BSL-3s and BSL-4s.
The dangers posed by biolabs often fly under the radar, but that may be changing. The General Accounting Office, in a report released this past September 21st, stated that the rapid - and often unregulated - proliferation of Level 3 and Level 4 labs places the public at significant risk. The public would do well to question the knee-jerk "security at all costs" policy of the federal government which threatens to build up stores of the world's deadliest organisms across the United States. As for proponents' arguments that the labs are absolutely safe and absolutely necessary, we shall address them soon in another post.