Presently, the US Congress’ biodefense pocketbook is wide open. There’s no shortage of outstretched hands. Much of it is pursued by an industry whose public image is staked on the false hope of creating meaningful protection from biological attack. In the past week, almost every major US daily has run articles praising the experimental biodefense “miracle” or “magic” brewing just around the corner at a local university or biotech startup. Did the United States have such a huge and promising biotech defense industry before September 11th and nobody noticed? No. By global standards, our program is big; but it isn’t promising and the professor or Chief Technology Officer around the corner is no more likely to save you from a biological attack than a tidal wave.
Through America’s preoccupation with homeland biodefense, the biotech industry believes it has been granted a license to proceed into a profitable war with no possibility of producing peace and no durable long-term product but profit. Congress didn’t exactly give biotech a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; but sloppy media coverage and shameless opportunism are creating one.
DynCorp, a spooky US defense contractor best known for blasting Colombia with wide spectrum herbicides in the Drug War, is setting up a bioweapons vaccine business. It’s partner is Porton International, a company which sprang forth from Porton Down, the UK’s equivalent of Ft. Detrick, MD. Before 1969 Ft. Detrick was the US headquarters of biological weapons research. Now it houses important elements of our biodefense apparatus. DynCorp has its fingers in many pies and also advises the US Army and industry on compliance with biological and chemical weapons agreements.
Another major military contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) already has assets at Ft. Detrick through contracts with the military and the National Cancer Institute.
In Texas, Lynntech Inc. proffers organophosphorus hydrolase as part of its quest to, in the soothing words of a local newspaper, discover “a single enzyme that will neutralize all toxic agents.” A pipe dream if one ever existed; but on September 11th the Texans got a call from a general at Ft. Detrick.
In Seattle, Corixa Corp. publicly complains that $3.5 million isn’t enough for its experimental anthrax vaccine and wants more help from the government. Corixa’s stock is up more than 50%. There are legions more.
The Vaccine Push
During the Gulf War, the US realized that it did not have the ability to vaccinate its troops (much less those of allies) against anthrax and other biological weapons possessed by Iraq. Entreaties to the pharmaceutical industry prompted a flood of antibiotics but little vaccine. Treating disease has always been more profitable than preventing it.
After further haggling, industry made clear it wasn’t interested in manufacturing bioweapons vaccines without massive subsidies and relief from liability. The military effectively agreed, and SAIC drew up a plan for the government to invest about $3 billion in research and to build vaccine facility costing $370 million. At this government facility, companies will produce eight (8) vaccines against anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia, botulinum, “next generation” (read: genetically engineered) anthrax, ricin, and equine encephalitis. This $3 billion plus buys only eight, only to protect the US military and, by agreement, some soldiers from Canada and the UK. US civilians are out of luck, according to SAIC “Beyond the baseline operating scope of the [government-owned, contractor-operated] facility design.” Foreign citizens aren’t even an afterthought.
Avoiding the Spiral and Invoking Diplomacy
On September 4th, the New York Times revealed that US Central Intelligence Agency biodefense researchers had tested mock biological bombs and built a real bioweapons production facility in Nevada, activities completely indistinguishable from offensive biological warfare research. The US kept these activities secret, and did not divulge them in annual confidence building reports to the Bioweapons Convention.
The US is now pouring billions more into biodefense. In the current climate, it is difficult to believe that potential adversaries will not respond with their own investments. After all, the US itself has failed to comply with its arms control commitments. The situation could very easily spiral out of control.
The sooner the US understands the impossibility of effective biodefense, the sooner pressure will build for the Bush administration to come to its senses and advocate fast conclusion of the Verification Protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
Edward Hammond is a Director of the Sunshine Project USA, a non-profit organization working to prevent development and use of biological weapons.