Month: January 2005

The Bio-Offense Lab

People fear the flu, with justification. An ordinary, garden-variety flu bug can kill thousands of people in a year, especially young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems like cancer patients or organ donor recipients.

So why is the University of Washington pursuing $22 million in federal funding for a new bioterrorism research lab that will study pathogens like smallpox and anthrax, which have killed only a handful of people in the past decade?

In 2003, the UW won $50 million from the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defense to set up a regional biodefense center to study pathogens that could be used to make bioweapons: anthrax, plague, tularemia, smallpox, etc. According to NIH documents, the UW will concentrate on studying the respiratory effects of these germs, with an overall goal of developing new vaccines and treatments for infected people.

But there already is a new, potent vaccine for anthrax, developed in Europe, that has fewer side-effects than the old anthrax vaccine that the Bush administration foisted on US troops in the post-Sept. 11th, post-anthrax attack hysteria. Smallpox exists only in labs; the last known smallpox infection was in 1977. Plague and tularemia don’t even make the list of the world’s worst diseases–a list dominated by malaria, AIDS, cholera, diarrheal diseases, and other side-effects of poverty, war, and maldevelopment.

In fact, the UW won the NIH grant over worthier applicants, including the Oregon Health and Science University, which is concentrating its research on West Nile virus and Dengue fever, two diseases which do still exist in the wild, are expanding their range because of global warming, and infect a large number of people every year. In addition, OHSU is currently studying why people with weakened immune systems have bad reactions to vaccines–a purpose far more useful than the chimerical “biodefense” argument used by the UW and the NIH.

The UW has secretly applied for $22 million grant to construct a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory in the heart of the UW’s health sciences complex, right next to the UW hospital and bordering two busy streets, a heavily used campus walkway, and one of the cities’ most traveled waterways. The university somehow forgot to consult its faculty, students, employees, the local neighborhood, and residents of the city itself, although the university lined up an impressive array of local politicians to support its application: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowski, Washington State Governor Gary Locke, and both of Washington’s Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray–who, by the way, support the project because the university has assured them “there will be robust outreach and educational programs throughout our region to keep the public informed about safety and security issues.”

The UW’s record on this count, however, has been exceedingly poor so far. Everything has been done behind closed doors, from the application for the $22 million, to the discussions on what research will be conducted, to any discussion of where the remainder of the construction money will come from. Yes, didn’t you hear? A $22 million grant will only finance about one-third of the cost of building the new lab: the rest of the money has to come from “other sources”–all of them public sources, in one way or another.

That $44 million could be drained from other university research and teaching programs, including vital AIDS-related research or funding for the hospital, which treats thousands of low-income people every year. It could come from the state legislature, in a year when the state is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and 60,000 Washington children have been dropped off the Medicaid rolls. This year, the state-funded Basic Health Plan, which provides healthcare coverage for low-income, working Washingtonians, is facing its most severe cuts yet, and many analysts are predicting its total demise.

The state could raise $44 million in bonds to finance construction (one of the most popular options). Much like George Bush’s deficit spending, bond issues are like borrowing money on a credit card, paying interest, and forgetting that the full amount has to be paid eventually, perhaps at a time when state residents will need those funds for more important things.

How quickly we forget our priorities when the UW and state politicians mouth the “job creation” mantra. In fact, the lab itself will employ about 1,000 researchers. That number seems small, until we remember that the only recent bioterrorist attack on US soil–the anthrax scare in 2001–was perpetrated, not by “foreign terrorists”, but by the disgruntled employee of a bio-research laboratory here in the US. What’s to prevent that from happening again? A few consultations with Gil Kerlikowski?

On the national level the construction of regional bioterrorism labs makes no sense. As with other ill-considered, Bush administration weapons policies (including missile defense and the attempt to revive nuclear weapons research), building new bioterrorism labs only makes other nations in the world nervous. It pushes them to revive their own dormant bioresearch labs or to acquire new stocks of dangerous biological agents. The US government has no control over research conducted in other nations, possibly under conditions that are far less secure than our own and might put millions of people at risk for accidental exposure. If such a disaster were to occur, we might beat our chests and rail at the bad guys or express shock and dismay, but we’d be ultimately responsible for the “accident.” And who wants to see smallpox or anthrax take root in the human population again?

If we’re truly worried about biosafety, we should guard ourselves from our government’s own ill-advised policies and the zeal of a handful of university researchers and administrators motivated by money and prestige. They’re not thinking about the big picture, and, unfortunately, the big picture includes the broader public health.

Playing Politics with Disaster Aid

The past week’s news has been all-tsunami all-the-time. But a couple of important aspects of the disaster haven’t received much airplay.

One issue that’s received almost no mention is that the worst-hit areas are also war zones. The island nation of Sri Lanka has been the site of a decades-long civil war, and the Aceh region on the northern tip of Sumatra has been fighting a war of independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military is notorious for human rights violations, and tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Aceh, most of them civilians and most of them murdered by the Indonesian military.

The Indonesian military is, out of necessity, playing a key role in transporting food, water, and medical supplies into Aceh, and this poses a two-fold problem for the Acehnese and international aid organizations. First, the Acehnese may not trust the Indonesian military and any groups that work with them, making the effort to save lives and rebuild the region twice as hard as it needs to be. Aid groups whose supplies and personnel arrive in Indonesian military aircraft and ships, and whose goods are unloaded or distributed by uniformed Indonesian troops, will have a hard time establishing a relationship with the Acehnese, the very people they’re trying to help.

In addition, the Indonesian government may try to play politics with aid distribution, withholding it from areas that have a history of resisting Indonesian government control. Historically, aid groups have been the first witnesses to this kind of political crime, a human rights violation that tends to occurs over the course of weeks and months after the initial disaster, long after the international media has moved on to juicier stories. Instead of chasing the next big headline, the international media should keep an eye on the long-term political and humanitarian problems that could develop, not just in Indonesia, but also in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), and Somalia.

In the meantime, ordinary folks like you and me can give support to aid groups who have experience serving people in war-torn regions and who know how to recognize–and expose–repressive governments who play politics with humanitarian aid. There are many good aid groups out there, but many tend to donate to regions where they already have on-going projects–in this case in Thailand and India. The governments of India and Thailand, however, have both announced that they have the resources to assist their own people and don’t need foreign aid. Whether that’s true or not, those two nations were not as severely hit as Aceh and Sri Lanka. Much of Aceh was leveled by the massive 9.0 earthquake that proceeded the Tsunami, and a large part of its coastal region remains swamped with seawater. In effect, it suffered a horrifying one-two punch.

Two organizations recognized this immediately and mounted efforts to send aid to Aceh within hours of the disaster. Oxfam International specializes in sending the basic necessities, like food and water, to the most devastated regions of the world. Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel-Prize-winning organization that regularly speaks its mind about the causes and conditions of poverty throughout war-torn regions of the world, sent medical supplies and equipment to purify water to the border of Aceh within less than 24-hours after the Tsunami hit.

Neither of these two groups are faith-based organizations, unlike many who are soliciting donations to send aid: World Vision, the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, American Friends Service Committee, or other organizations who base their giving on Christian values. While many folks argue that these groups and others like them do fine work while keeping their religious beliefs to themselves, many donors have difficulty giving to faith-based groups; we often feel that aid distribution ought to be a secular activity. In this case in particular, the victims of the earthquake and tsunami are primarily Muslim, Buddhist, and Animist peoples, making it hard to escape a feeling of nausea and/or arrogance when donating to a Christian relief organization.

But donating to World Vision is not a crime and can do much good. What is a crime is the Bush Administration’s response to the disaster. First announcing only $15 million in aid, international pressure eventually forced Colin Powell to announce an additional $20 million. Then, after other nations stepped in to donate hundreds of millions more (for example, Japan, with a much smaller economy than ours, is giving $500 million), George W. Bush took a break from his extended vacation at the ranch to announce a measly $350 million aid package.

The richest nation in the world, the United States, ought to be able to muster at least a couple billion dollars. After all, we have about $17 billion sitting in a fund for Iraqi reconstruction that’s been largely unspent because of an ongoing guerrilla war that shows no sign of ending any time soon. Diverting just 15% of that money would send more than $2.5 billion to people who have lost, literally, everything, and it could build a feeling of goodwill toward the US that’s been sorely lacking since shortly after 9/11.

There is more that we can do, and that means pushing our government to get its priorities straight and to stop playing its own brand of politics with our aid money.

To make a donation to Oxfam, visit, call 1-800-77-OXFAM, or send a check to Oxfam America, Asia Earthquake Fund, P.O. Box 1211, Albert Lea, MN 56007-1211. To donate to Doctors Without Borders, visit, call 1-888-392-0392, or send a check to Doctors Without Borders USA, P.O. Box 1856, Merrifield, VA 22116-8056.

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