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Last Updated

04 Jun 2003

Source: Boston Globe, June 4, 2003

Preventing future bioweapons risks

By Daniel S. Shapiro. Dr. Shapiro is associate professor of medicine, pathology, and laboratory medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and directs the clinical microbiology laboratory at Boston Medical Center.

IN AN EFFORT to protect itself against biological terrorism, the United States will unwittingly become vulnerable to future attacks unless we devise a solution to a problem of our own creation. It seems that the ability to look only a single move ahead is not limited to novice chess players.

One of the concerns of the biodefense community is that the former Soviet Union had an extensive infrastructure that included facilities for the research, production, and testing of biowarfare agents. It employed tens of thousands of full-time scientists, approximately 7,000 of whom are regarded as posing a critical proliferation risk because they have specific knowledge that would be of value to groups working on the development of bioweapons.

As a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the discontinuation of its bioweapons program, many of the scientists have suffered financial hardship, exacerbating the concern that they may resort to working for rogue states or for terrorist groups.

A small amount of US funding has been made available to these scientists in order to enable them to make the transition into mainstream science, but the amount has been inadequate.

What of the future of they ambitious biodefense program in the United States? The research budget has grown enormously as a result of concerns about bioterrorism and will likely exceed $2 billion annually. By funding basic and applied science, the money will enable thousands of American scientists to enter into defensive research on pathogens that are viewed as significant threats - the agents of anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, and other diseases.

Let's look not one move ahead, but a few. Several years from now there will be numerous researchers working in biodefense research and employed at the assistant professor level. Some of these scientists will be denied promotion and tenure. Similarly, there will be large numbers of graduate students working in laboratories on bioterrorism agents who will find themselves unable to meet the requirements for their degree and will be forced out of graduate school.

What will become of these two groups of people who have intimate knowledge of biodefense and are out of work? No provision has been made for this concern. There has been little discussion of the need for a policy to deal with what may be hundreds or even thousands of unemployed scientists living in the United States whose areas of expertise can in some cases be translated to work in weapons design and production.

Because we have created an infrastructure that will fund thousands of scientists in biodefense research, we must have a plan to ensure that those who leave their work are able to support themselves and their families. Possibilities include retraining these scientists and the far less politically palatable option of providing unemployment compensation at a much higher level than is the societal standard to these scientists. Both the imagination to design an acceptable program and the political will to place this on our national agenda are needed in order to prevent the dissemination of dangerous knowledge by disenchanted and unemployed scientists.

The individual who sent letters containing anthrax spores in the US mail is suspected by many of having worked in the biodefense community. We do not know the motive for these acts nor the psychological setting that resulted in the perpetrator's decision to disseminate the lethal spores. As a result of the exponential increase in federal funding, the United States will be increasing many-fold the number of people who have the ability to manufacture biological weapons.

Despite the low probability that a given individual will take it upon himself to actually produce and use a bioweapon, the probability one or more people engaged in biodefense work will eventually do so is increasing due to the sheer force of numbers.

If Congress ever decides to cut funding for biodefense research dramatically, its decision will result in what we now worry about in the former Soviet Union: thousands of unemployed or underemployed scientists who are financially and personally finding it difficult to care for themselves and their families. Unless we can come up with an alternative plan to keep these scientists employed, we have bought into funding a tremendous research program in perpetuity.