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Last Updated

02 Apr 2003

Source: Wired News, April 2, 2003

Peacenik Toils for the Pentagon

By Noah Shachtman

NEWARK, New Jersey -- In 1987, when Nancy Connell was a Harvard grad student in biology and an outspoken pacifist persuading thousands of fellow scientists to pledge not to engage in biological weapons research, she never dreamed that she would one day take money from the Army to examine anthrax, smallpox and plague.

But now, nearly two decades later, Connell is heading up a Pentagon-funded biodefense research lab in Newark, New Jersey -- a move, she says, that doesn't compromise her belief in nonviolence. Not much, at least.

Connell is one of thousands of researchers across the country gravitating toward the billions of dollars in new funds available for investigating biodefense.

But she might be the only one who lives in a collective built by anarchists.

Connell began her activism early, helping to shut down her high school in protest when the U.S. bombed Cambodia. As a student at Middlebury College, she helped found the Middlebury Women's Group with her roommate Eve Ensler, who went on to write The Vagina Monologues.

Then, as a graduate student in biology at Harvard during the early '80s, Connell's pacifist beliefs began to dovetail with an interest in curbing any potential use of biological weapons.

"It (was) absolutely incomprehensible to me -- the idea of using a disease as a weapon against other people," Connell said.

Connell vowed never to use research funds from the armed forces, as so many others in her field were doing, then and now.

"The idea of taking DoD (Department of Defense) money, that was tainted money," said Lynne Gilson, a Harvard classmate of Connell's, now a scientist at Hawaii Biotech. The company just received a $3 million grant from the military to work on a new anthrax cure.

Connell helped draft and circulate a pledge among her fellow scientists not to knowingly work on research that could lead to the development of biological weapons. Some 4,000 scientists signed the pledge.

From there, Connell became more involved in the enforcement of the Biological Weapons Convention, working to put teeth into what many called "a gentleman's agreement."

Then, as now, she was known as someone forceful, outspoken -- but without the scraping pitch typical of so many activists. Her gentle tone was more that of a classical musician. She majored in music in college, and still practices cello, when she can, at her home in Free Hold, New Jersey -- a town founded by anarchists, which, to this day, forbids fences and private ownership of land. The land is communally owned by all the families in the town.

In 1992, Connell joined the faculty of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) as a microbiology professor.

Her research centered around tuberculosis -- specifically, the strains resistant to multi-drug therapies. To properly handle the TB germs -- some of the planet's most toxic -- she and her fellow scientists needed an ultra-secure "biosafety level three" (BSL-3) lab. Work on building it began in 1998.

About a year, later, the BSL-3 lab attracted the attention of university brass. Grant money was available from the Army to do basic research in biodefense. And they wanted Connell to head up the effort.

"When the suggestion was first made," she said, "I couldn't sleep."

Then Connell realized the biodefense money could be used not only to help protect a population from germ-based weapons but also from everyday assassins like TB and flu.

"There's no smallpox out there. There isn't a case anywhere in the world," she said.

But less-heralded scourges like TB and flu "actually do kill people."

Biodefense funding, which began to flow in the late '90s, became a multi-billion tsunami after 9/11. While money for heart disease and cancer research would grow by only 4 percent, the National Institutes of Health plans to double its biodefense budget next year, to $1.6 billion. The Defense Department will add at least another billion.

Her boss at UMDNJ is happy with how Connell wants to use her slice of this staggering sum.

"One of the things this country has done least well is the maintenance of public health," said Bill Stephenson, UMDNJ's vice president of research. "We were lulled into a false sense of security when it looked like everything would be cured by antibiotics. So this is a perfect use of some of the biodefense money."

Connell's $8.5 million, four-year grant funds research to identify infectious agents quickly. Flu, TB, anthrax, plague -- all of these have the same symptoms, at first: fever, headache, fatigue. And it's hard to determine whether a biological agent or something more common is the cause. These germs can hide in the lymph nodes, undetectable for days.

But each of these pathogens affects white-blood-cell genes in a very different way. So Connell is hoping -- way, way down the road -- to develop a single blood test for all of them.

Every Tuesday, Connell's team takes 250 milliliters of blood from a human donor, and infects it with the "organism of the week" -- sometimes the germs for a biological weapon, sometimes flu or TB. Then they look to see how the white blood cells react.

Layer after layer of defense keep these germs from escaping from the lab. Surveillance cameras keep watch constantly. A coded key card has to unlock two sets of doors, just to get someone into the changing room. There, entrants have to put on white, Tyvek protective suits and hoods -- it's like stuffing yourself into a FedEx envelope. In the main lab, these have to be worn at all times.

Getting into the area requires two access codes punched into a keypad, so no one goes in alone. The germs are locked in, essentially, in a big walk-in closet off of the lab. In it is a deep freezer, kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius. And in that freezer are the vials that could unleash untold death.

Most times, Connell feels comfortable experimenting with these pathogens in the name of public health.

But not always.

"Late at night, I think, 'what bullshit.' I used to roll my eyes upon hearing arguments like this," she writes in e-mail to Jon Beckwith, her former Harvard professor.

But the biodefense windfall for researchers "should be exploited by those who have despaired of the state of public health in the post-Reagan era," she notes.

She added, "My best contribution is to be outspoken."