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Germs, Viruses, and Secrets

Secrecy News
Federation of American Scientists
March 10, 2009

In an awkward and disturbing irony, the most significant bioterrorism incident in the U.S. to date — i.e., the 2001 anthrax attacks — apparently originated in a U.S. military laboratory that was engaged in biological defense research. Yet the pursuit of such research, and perhaps the associated threat, has continued to expand.

“No one in the Federal Government even knows for sure how many of these labs there are in the United States, much less what research they are doing or whether they are safe and secure,” said Rep. Bart Stupak at a 2007 congressional hearing, the record of which has recently been published. “What we do know is that the Federal Government has been funding the proliferation of these labs on an unprecedented scale.”

See “Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: The Silent Proliferation of Bio-Laboratories in the United States” (pdf), House Committee on Energy and Commerce, October 4, 2007 (published December 2008).

“High-containment laboratories play a critical role in the biodefense effort, offering the hope of better responses to an attack and a better understanding of the threat posed by bioterrorism,” according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service. “However, they also could increase the risk of a biological attack by serving as a potential source of materials or training.”

One approach to mitigating that risk would be to curtail such research. Another approach, which is explored in the new CRS report, is to expand oversight of biodefense research facilities. A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News. See “Oversight of High-Containment Biological Laboratories: Issues for Congress,” March 5, 2009.

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