Within one week of contracting the devastating virus known as Ebola-Zaire, the relentless attack of the disease liquefies all the victim’s organs and tissue except bone and skeletal muscle. It’s also known as African hemorrhagic fever because at the end stage as organs dissolve, blood sometimes drains from the eyes, mouth and every other orifice in the body. It leads to death in up to 90% of patients, usually within days. Anyone who comes in contact with a person infected with Ebola is at risk. An outbreak could turn into a national or international epidemic if an infected person travels to other parts of the world. Ebola emerged from the rainforests, as diseases do from unique ecosystems under destruction.
In the leafy suburb of Reston, Virginia, two outbreaks of the Ebola virus threatened the population of the greater Washington, D.C., area. As government, public relations flacks called for calm and assured the press and public that a slight problem was being corrected, a space-suited US Army decontamination team sealed off the Hazelton Research Products laboratory and transformed it into the biological equivalent of the lunar surface, a place where no living organism could survive.
Behind the scenes, Army bio-war specialists were at maximum pucker factor — or kiss-your-ass-goodbye mode — knowing they were witnessing the outbreak of a Bio-Safety Level (BSL) 4 contagion, the highest level of biological security. It was a new strain of one of the world’s deadliest microbes. And this version of Ebola seemed to have learned a new trick: airborne transmission — no physical contact necessary to spread the incurable, fatal infection. The crack of doom was in the air.
As it happened, the strain of virus that broke out in the Hazelton labs and came to be classified as Ebola-Reston differed from the deadly Ebola-Zaire strain, which first crashed into the world’s consciousness in 1976, by a few random proteins on one strand of DNA — similar enough to the original to slaughter every non-human primate in the lab but different enough to just give a few humans some flu-like symptoms before going to ground. The general populace and the seat of federal government were spared by a microscopic roll of the dice.
Add a dose of Tuberculosis (TB) – a disease with emerging, drug-resistant strains that is easily spread through the air when infectious people cough, sneeze or talk and is expected to kill 36 million people between 2002-2020 – a sprinkle of anthrax, a dash of SARS and West Nile virus and you may have part of the recipe for a new laboratory currently under construction at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.
While there has been some local coverage of the issue in the Montgomery Gazette, the region’s leading media including The Washington Post has been appallingly negligent in it’s coverage of the issue. The story is this: Under the guise of the war on terror, the Bush administration has $10.6 billion to give to those willing to work with deadly, live pathogens — vaguely classified as “known, new and reemerging infectious diseases,” through its biodefense program.
You can almost hear the chaa-ching of the cash filling the coffers. A chunk of change so large – $1.2 billion – went to the civilian portion of the effort at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that director Anthony Fauci reportedly said, “This is the largest single increase of any discipline in any institute, for any reason for any disease in the history of NIH, including escalation of HIV resources and the war on cancer.”
The thick veil of secrecy that shrouds this project makes it difficult to know exactly which pathogens will be studied. Officials at NIH in Bethesda can’t confirm what agents might be studied at the new lab, a BSL 3 lab. They do say that “exotic diseases” like Ebola will not be part of the mix at the new lab. Faith is fleeting though, because United Press International reports that there are six BSL level 4 labs “operating or nearly completed” in the United States. One of those is at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. So either there is an existing lab that studies Ebola in Bethesda, or officials are not being honest about what will be studied in the new lab.
Even if a lab starts as a BSL 3, bioterrorism lab’s safety levels are upgraded and guidelines changed without notice to citizens. And all the new funding has accelerated the pace of upgrading current BSL levels. Such an attempt was recently stopped by New York Senators Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer when they blocked the Homeland Security Department from upgrading a lab on Long Island to a BSL 4, so hemorrhagic fever could not be studied there.
An advocacy group, Coalition Against Bio-terror Labs, said that under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, “it would be illegal for them to release information about this research, or about any thefts, accidental or deliberate release of contagions or what agents are contained there.”
With so much money available, there may be a similar lab coming to a location near you. They’ve already got the Washington metropolitan area surrounded by and speckled with BSL 3’s and 4’s. New bioterrorism labs are being constructed and old ones being upgraded as fast as the money can flow. Proposals to place bioterrorism facilities in populated areas have sparked citizen protests in other communities across the United States.
Call us NIMBY’s (Not In My Backyard), or, better yet, call us NIABY’s (Not In Anybody’s Backyard), since such labs have no place in a highly populated, suburban center a few miles from our nation’s capital. The present location at the outer edge of the NIH campus is a bomb’s throw from the corner of Cedar Lane and Rockville Pike, one of the busiest commercial roadways in suburban Maryland. This location severely and unnecessarily jeopardizes the lives and health of our children, families and community. It threatens the security of our community and our nation. “Building 33,” as it is known, leaves us vulnerable to attack, accidents and outbreaks of disease.
Coalition Against Bio-terror Labs claims that, “If dangerous materials were to leak from [a] lab or an infected animal [were to] escape, local residents – by law – may never be told.” A safety failure, whether malicious or accidental, could be catastrophic given the NIH Bethesda campus’s proximity to heavily populated residential neighborhoods, schools and businesses in Maryland, Washington DC and Virginia.
The lab is being built about 10 miles from the United States Capital and is very close to federal and military workplaces housing hundreds of thousands of employees and a large part of the brain trust required in the event of a national emergency. The lab is a short distance from the medical infrastructure upon which the region would depend in the event of a broad terrorist attack.
According to Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of NIH, there is no cause for concern. In a letter to U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, Zerhouni, intoxicated by the lure of the Bush administration’s offer of big bucks said, “At the request of NIH, Community Liaison Council (CLC), we have conducted a Risk Assessment for Building 33. The results of the Assessment indicate there is no risk of public harm posed by the operation of Building 33.”
While we’re all snug in our beds – not – visions of dollar signs are dancing in Zerhouni’s head. He couldn’t allow safety concerns to impede the flood of money, money, money to NIH. Despite the objections of citizens, neighborhood associations, community representatives, and Maryland’s State and U.S. Senators and Representatives – NIH made the irrevocable decision to build this lab in its present location — THEN they did their after-the-fact Risk Assessment.
Tom Gallagher, the guy on the inside who is supposed to be the liaison and ombudsman to our community, did not return phone calls for this article. He wrote to a neighbor telling her to take comfort in NIH’s assertion that the diseases to be researched at this lab are only to be used defensively against emerging infectious diseases, including those that may be purposely spread by people seeking to do physical harm to our nation. Did anyone tell the terrorists that this lab cannot be targeted for an offensive, bioterror attack?
External fireworks by a truck or suicide bomber or a rocket-propelled grenade launched from the busy intersection of Cedar Land and Rockville Pike are not the only threats the lab poses to Bethesda and surrounding communities. Word that a scientist in Taiwan has developed SARS after working with the virus in a high-security laboratory has renewed concerns that a future outbreak of the disease could emerge not from the animal markets, but from a lab in any part of the world, according the Canadian Press. Scientists and personnel at NIH are the best in the business and will make the lab as safe as possible. But no facility is immune to accidents, and since this is a BSL 3 lab, any mishap could have dire consequences.
As an expert on the design of bio-safety labs recently told the Los Angeles Times, “We are getting as close to fail-safe as possible…as fail-safe as the space shuttle.” The shuttle’s failure rate per number of missions flown is downright pathetic. And when disasters happen on the space shuttle, sadly, half a dozen people die. Translate that to a safety failure of comparable magnitude at an NIH bioterrorism lab in the middle of Bethesda. The nuclear power industry has fail-safe systems, too. Is the bioterrorism industry promising only a few Chernobyl’s and Three Mile Island’s in the national capital area only once in while?
Citizens’ reasonable request that the lab be located elsewhere, away from population centers – or moved to a less vulnerable location within the campus – are dismissed as “impractical.” Dr. Zerhouni, shunting aside citizen’s concerns, says “it would take an enormous amount of time and money,” and it can’t be placed in the NIH’s campus interior because “there are no funds in NIH’s current five year Buildings and Facilities Plan” to move the bioterrorism facility into “either new or renovated laboratory space.”
Since concerns about our lives and health present an impractical inconvenience, perhaps Dr. Zerhouni should simply try to convince us: Ebola is good for you. If he thinks we believe that he cannot find the money for a reasonable lab location in this year’s budget of $27 billion dollars, he obviously thinks the people of the national capital area are the biggest suckers since the Trojans let that gift horse through their gates. The other possibility is that he does not have the management skills that should be required of someone in his position. Either way, the time for polite questions and debate is over. It’s time to put up our dukes and get down to it. Citizens and their leaders should demand that the bioterrorism lab be relocated to a less vulnerable place – and accept nothing less.
KARYN STRICKLER is a political activist and writer. She is running as a petition candidate for the national Sierra Club Board of Directors. Campaign information can be found at: http://members.cruzio.com/~jbean/candidates.html.
Andrew Christie, an environmental activist in Los Angeles, contributed to this article. Copyright 2003 by KARYN STRICKLER.