Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 22, 2006

CAP releases report on biosecurity

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on June 22, 2006

The Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report entitled “Biosecurity: A Comprehensive Action Plan” at an event in DC today. The well-written report argues for an integrated approach to biosecurity (combating both natural and mandate threats), surveys the state of biosecurity today, and offers a number of recommendations on how to improve the system on a global basis.

The report discusses a number of interesting issues; for example, I found this passage on pages 42-43 particularly interesting:

Since 9/11, for example, the Bush administration has placed a new emphasis on “laboratory threat characterization,” which includes the development and study of known and putative biowarfare agents to guide the development of medical countermeasures. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), currently being built at Fort Detrick, Md., will include a Biological Threat Characterization Program (BTCP) to examine how bioterrorists might use genetic engineering and other advanced techniques to convert viruses andbacteria into more deadly and effective weapons. Such defensive research includes creating and assessing genetically modified pathogens that an enemy might in theory develop.

This type of research does more harm than good. Given the vast genetic diversity of microorganisms, it is extremely unlikely that the United States could anticipate the specific organisms that an enemy might create. Instead, the genetically engineered pathogens would simply be potential offensive weapons in their own right. Thus, even though the research is for defensive purposes, other countries may not take us at our word. Instead, they may view such experiments as possible cover for offensive activities — in part because many U.S. biodefense projects are shrouded in secrecy.

This is a difficult issue. A journal article published in 2005, Biological Threat Characterization Research: A Critical Component of National Biodefense, makes the opposite argument: that focusing only on known pathogens is shortsighted, and threat characterization research can link intelligence with biosecurity and make it possible to anticipate and develop countermeasures against future threats. But the authors of this paper also argue that super-strong safeguards are necessary – an acknowledge of sorts that there are real risks created by this kind of research. But all it would take is one malcontent working at Fort Detrick to circumvent security and take a bioengineered pathogen out of the lab and release or sell it. Is that a risk that we’re willing to take? Or is the alternative risk – not being prepared to face future threats – a worse outcome? This is a difficult call, and something that needs more debate and consideration that it’s received to date.

Overall, a good report by CAP – and a useful set of recommendations that should be carefully weighed and considered.

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