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Imagine writing to a private mail-order company in Small Town, U.S.A., and purchasing several grams of plutonium.
The very idea is laughable.
Yet a man named Larry Harris of Lancaster, Ohio, did something similar in March 1995. A microbiologist and alleged white supremacist, Harris used a forged letterhead to purchase Yersinia pestis—the organism responsible for bubonic plague—from a Maryland laboratory. The lab mailed the samples but later became suspicious and contacted authorities. Harris was caught before setting off an epidemic.
At the time, the only crime Harris could be charged with was mail fraud.
The incident spurred some efforts to restrict access to biological agents of mass destruction. But many experts say these and other recent steps by the Bush administration do not go far enough.
In fact, the Bush administration has actively resisted efforts to institute inspections of laboratories researching biological agents of mass destruction. Just last July, the U.S. vetoed a protocol to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention treaty that would have established mandatory inspections of bioweapons-capable facilities.
The protocol had been in negotiation for six years. Other nations involved in the talks must now proceed without the U.S., or start over from scratch.
One reason for the U.S. veto could be secret bioweapons projects conducted for several years by the Pentagon and CIA, detailed in a New York Times report of Sept. 4. Some officials say the projects test the limits of the 1972 treaty.
Another reason is clear: The Bush administration backed down under pressure from the biotechnology industry, which objected to random inspections of facilities dealing with hazardous biological materials. Supporters of the treaty pointed out that the U.S. has demanded inspections of such facilities in other countries, but refuses to allow similar treatment at home.
The treaty provisions would have provided for “challenge” inspections during unexplained epidemics caused by bio-terror agents. During the current U.S. outbreak of anthrax infections, the treaty protocol would have allowed investigators to inspect facilities researching anthrax to determine if the bacteria could have gotten into the wrong hands. If domestic sources were eliminated, inspectors could have traveled to factories in Iraq, Sudan or elsewhere to identify the exact strain of the bacterial culprit.
During treaty discussions, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America objected to random inspections on the grounds that they would reveal trade secrets. The Federation of American Scientists countered that inspection techniques existed that could protect against industrial espionage.
Ironically, the Chemical Weapons Treaty, which came into force last year, allows exactly the same sort of random inspections of chemical research facilities, with similar “managed access” guidelines.
Why did federal law enforcement agents not immediately investigate domestic sources of anthrax in the wake of several deaths and dozens of illnesses?
Some have suspected all along that the recent anthrax attacks are the work of a domestic “mad scientist.” In today’s largely unregulated environment, sneaking a handful of anthrax out of a lab and mailing it using pidgin English and the name of Allah is far too easy.
Within days of the first anthrax fatality, scientists in Britain had identified the bacteria responsible as the “Ames” strain developed in the U.S. bioweapons program of the 1960s. Yet, it took the American government more than a month to admit the fact.
Washington still has no central inventory of hazardous disease cultures in university, industry, and private laboratories. Investigation into the various anthrax strains sitting in hundreds of research sites around the nation should have occurred immediately in the wake of the outbreak, in order to eliminate possible sources and narrow down culprits. It is not too late to undertake such an investigation.
Instead, the pharmaceutical industry is focusing on anthrax vaccines. Regulations would be costly for the industry, while vaccines could mean profits. But vaccines can have debilitating side effects and hefty public health costs. And because many bacterial and viral agents can mutate, vaccines may not be foolproof.
The safest recourse is preventing the release of dangerous bacterial and viral agents into the environment in the first place.
Some U.S. scientists involved in early nuclear research realized the criminal potential of the material and instituted regulatory guidelines. Scientists around the world united, and regulatory bodies along the lines of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency were set up in almost every country producing or using the materials.
Biological materials are microscopic and easier to steal than radioactive materials, which can be quickly detected. In thwarting regulation, the biotech industry could be called criminally negligent.
It is not too late for the U.S. to sign the bioweapons protocol and institute a regulatory program for biological agents. Such a program could prove to be a model for nations around the world. In addition to safeguards for access, handling, and storage of materials, the program should also involve the maintenance of a database for classification of strains of potential biological agents so that investigation and prosecution of criminals would be easier.
If the U.S. does not undertake such regulations soon, the terrible anthrax attacks of the last few weeks could be just the beginning.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.