As the US government picks up the pace of building high-security biodefence laboratories, community groups and watchdogs are ramping up their protests.

Danger signals: the number of US labs that can handle deadly pathogens is rising. Credit: CDC

The latest clash centres on Fort Detrick, an army facility in Frederick, Maryland, that has long been home to biosecurity labs. The government is planning to overhaul the existing facilities and build a new biodefence research complex. Construction has already begun on one component: the Department of Homeland Security's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC). This is slated for completion in June 2008.

But critics want to halt work on this facility and others in the works nationwide. On 30 August, opponents were scheduled to air their concerns at a public meeting in Frederick about Fort Detrick's expansion.

“From almost any way of looking at it, this makes absolutely no sense,” says Barry Kissin, a lawyer and congressional candidate from Frederick, about the planned facility. “This does the opposite of provide for our security, at great expense and great hazard.”

Although local communities often protest about biodefence labs in their midst, the $105-million NBACC does stand out. Plans inadvertently posted on the Internet suggest that personnel there will conduct exercises known as 'red-teaming'. These would involve creating and testing biothreat agents thought to belong to enemy arsenals. The Department of Homeland Security is also attempting to classify the facility, which means activities there would be off-limits to public enquiry.

The NBACC will include labs operating at the highest biosecurity level — biosafety level 4 — which handle the deadliest pathogens. This would be in addition to several biosafety level 4 facilities already in existence at the Fort Detrick campus. But critics say more labs will increase the threat to the surrounding community — they say pathogens could escape or be removed surreptitiously from the labs. Anthrax that was used in the unsolved mail attacks of late 2001, for instance, is thought to have come from a research lab.

Opponents also charge that the facility runs the risk of spurring other countries to ramp up biowarfare activities: unless inspectors are allowed to investigate the site, some might suspect the United States of creating offensive weapons.

“It's a really big mistake to classify the entire NBACC facility,” says Alan Pearson, an expert on biological weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation in Washington DC. “Clearly there are going to be some aspects of the work that ought to be classified, but those ought to be minimal. Otherwise you start generating suspicions and, frankly, generating excuses for other countries.”

The department says that classification is necessary to prevent other nations from obtaining information about US weak points. “Providing a secure environment for the handling of sensitive information in this way makes sense, and will not allow our enemies to gain the advantage should vulnerabilities be revealed,” says Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for the department.

Critics are also worried that the Department of Homeland Security could attempt to classify another project it has in the works: a $450-million complex of high-biosecurity labs and testing grounds called the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The department is holding a nationwide competition to determine where the lab will be located; 12 sites remain in the running. Kelly says the department has no plans to classify the complex in question. But one site that has made the shortlist is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California — which is already a classified facility.

How will the United States assure the world that its research is defensive if it's being conducted at a classified nuclear-weapons laboratory?

“How will the United States assure the rest of the world that the research is completely defensive if it's being conducted at a classified nuclear-weapons laboratory?” asks Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-based group that monitors the national laboratory.

NBACC and the bio–agro facility are just part of a recent boom in biodefence spending in the United States. The federal government has spent $36 billion to combat bioterrorism since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, according to an analysis by the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. Three additional biosafety level 4 labs are in the works, including one at Boston University in Massachusetts that has been heavily protested. Fourteen new biosecurity level 2 and 3 labs are also planned.

Pearson argues that the country should spend more on working to prevent bioterrorism in the first place, by strengthening the United Nations' biological and chemical weapons conventions, and improving supervision of its own research. “It wouldn't take much money to strengthen prevention,” he says, “and it would do a lot more to keep us safe.”