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Making, fighting diseases of terror

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Biologists at Fort Detrick's newest biodefense center may be asked to make some of the world's deadliest microbes even more dangerous than they already are.

One of the biologists' jobs, according to chief scientist Bernard Courtney, will be to create pathogens to match strains that terrorists are clandestinely producing and then develop vaccines and drugs to combat them.

But some arms control specialists worry that the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center - now operating out of borrowed lab space at the Frederick base and elsewhere - might develop new vaccine-resistant or lethal microbes without solid evidence of a terrorist plot to unleash similar bugs.

The result, they say, could increase the risk that nasty new organisms will be unleashed on the world.

Alan Pearson, director of the chemical and bioweapons control program at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, said government scientists must tread carefully. Otherwise, he said, they could wind up "in essence creating new threats that we're going to have to defend ourselves against."

Groundbreaking is scheduled today for the $128 million, 160,000-square-foot center, called NBACC and pronounced "En-Back." Built for the Department of Homeland Security, it will be dedicated to bioterror research and analysis. The center is expected to be completed in 2008.

As large as it is, NBACC accounts for a fraction of the $36 billion that Pearson estimates has been spent on biodefense since fiscal 2001. The total is far more, even adjusting for inflation, than the U.S. spent on the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bombs during World War II.

Over the past few years, some nonproliferation experts and advocates have called the huge biodefense buildup excessive and destabilizing. But NBACC's programs have drawn some of the harshest criticism.

One of the center's two divisions would conduct forensic analyses of biological agents used in any attack, a capability many arms experts say is urgently needed.

The problem, some experts say, is the center's "threat assessment" program to prepare for likely terror attacks.

A fact sheet posted on the Department of Homeland Security's Web site does not spell out what "threat assessment" means. It says only that NBACC's scientists will "fill in information gaps to better understand current and future biological threats."

NBACC's Courtney, at a briefing for reporters last week in Department of Homeland Security offices in Washington, likewise revealed few details of current or planned work.

But in a February 2004 presentation, which found its way onto the Internet, an Army biowarfare expert wrote that NBACC would grow, modify, store, stabilize, package and test disease microbes in aerosol chambers. The purpose is to determine what would happen if they were unleashed in an attack.

The presentation was made by Lt. Col. George W. Korch Jr., who holds a doctorate in immunology and infectious diseases from what is now Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Korch, who was deputy director of NBACC at the time, said the center would study "novel packaging" and delivery systems for biological agents and engage in "red teaming." That's military jargon for setting up a group to dream up ways an enemy might outwit U.S. forces.

Today, Korch is a full colonel and director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, also at Fort Detrick. A spokesman for Korch said last week that he did not have time for an interview.

Courtney said Wednesday that NBACC is prepared to engineer and test a modified disease organism but only when there is "credible information that it's truly a threat that exists," meaning that terrorists are pursuing it.

Courtney said he would not call staff meetings with the aim of "coming up with bioterror novels," or seek to develop new biological agents beyond the point necessary for figuring out how to protect against them.

Nor, he said, will any of NBACC's work violate the treaty banning the development of biological weapons, signed by the United States in 1972.

Still, arms control experts are concerned. At least some of NBACC's work is classified, several pointed out, and the center itself will be a closed facility. Although researchers there will publish work in scientific journals, Courtney said, anything that reveals U.S. "vulnerabilities" will not be released.

None of the nonproliferation specialists interviewed by The Sun believes the U.S. seeks to build offensive bioweapons. But they're concerned that foreign governments might conclude otherwise if too much of the work is secret.

"Would we like to see this kind of work going on in Russia or China? And what would we say about it?" asks Pearson.

He pointed out that after World War II, U.S. defensive research "shaded into" an offensive effort after scientists discovered the potential of their new weapon.

Milton Leitenberg, an arms control scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park, wrote in a December 2005 book that in light of U.S. actions, it's reasonable to expect that "a smaller replica of the U.S. biodefense program is taking place in Russia."

NBACC is just one of several biodefense facilities planned for Fort Detrick, at a cost of $1.2 billion. New or expanded facilities have been built or planned around the country, including at Boston University and the University of Texas at Galveston.

The nation's Biosafety Level-4 laboratories - where work is conducted on the most dangerous viruses - will grow from 20,000 square feet in 2001 to 200,000 square feet over the next few years, according to Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University chemist who follows arms control issues.

Ebright contends that this tenfold expansion raises the risk of accidents or the diversion of dangerous organisms. "If a worker in one of these facilities removes a single viral particle or a single cell, which cannot be detected or prevented, that single particle or cell can form the basis of an outbreak," he said.

Biologists who study dangerous microbes work under strictly controlled conditions. In Biosafety Level-4 labs, they must wear heavy "moon suits" connected to an outside air supply and work in "glove boxes" that prevent direct contact with microbes.

But some critics of NBACC point out that accidents can happen even in well-equipped labs with experienced personnel.

In the wake of the 2001 anthrax mailings, 31,000 letters, packages and other items were sent to USAMRIID at Fort Detrick. Scientists and technicians performed 250,000 chemical analyses on those samples, said Chuck Dasey, a Fort Detrick spokesman.

According to an undated U.S. Army Medical Command report, workers inadvertently spread deadly anthrax spores outside the sealed containment labs and into an office, a changing room and the exterior seal of a "passbox" used to transfer microbes in and out of one lab.

Investigators found the seal around the outside of the passbox was incubating 200 colonies of Ames-strain anthrax, the type used in the 2001 attacks. Eighty-eight people were tested for exposure, though none was found to be infected.

Courtney, NBACC's chief scientist, cited the anthrax letters as evidence of the need for the new center's research. "Not being prepared is not a strategy," he said. "There's a real threat that someone could take pathogens and use them against the public. There's no question about that. It's been done."

douglas.birch@baltsun.com

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