So begins the hand-wringing about mad biodefense scientists

As I mentioned in my two previous posts about the Amerithrax suspect, (here and here), the entire country will soon be all tits-a-flutter about the looming threat of mad biodefense scientists.

Science magazine joins in with this article and soundbites from Gerald Epstein and Jonathan Tucker.

Biodefense researchers were pondering today whether there might be a backlash to their field if the worst bioterror crime in U.S. history was indeed committed by a scientist who had spent a career developing countermeasures against anthrax. But the fact that Ivins won’t face trial also raised the uncomfortable specter that the full truth about the case may never come out. “We may never know for sure whether he did it or not,” says virologist Thomas Geisbert, a former USAMRIID researcher now at Boston University.


The death–and presumed involvement in the anthrax letters–puts the biodefense research community in a tight spot, says Gerald Epstein, a biosecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “From the very beginning, there has been speculation that the attacks were carried out by a biodefense zealot who wanted to prove that bioterrorism was a serious problem,” says Epstein. If true, that could give the public the impression that “biodefense research is a giant fraud,” he says. “It would be unfortunate if the message people take away from this is that the only individuals we should be concerned about are deranged biodefense scientists.”


Jonathan Tucker, a specialist on biological weapons control, says the incident is bound to evoke new concerns about “insider threats” at government and university labs. Officials may be compelled to further scrutinize researchers who work with select agents, Tucker says, adding that some questions have already been raised about “the adequacy of the screening process” used by the FBI to determine if a scientist should be allowed to work with a dangerous pathogen.

Where the bad bugs are

Where bad bugs are

This issue has been debated for a long time. Several years ago I would have pooh-poohed the idea that highly trained and vetted scientists would present such a risk.  But for at least the last couple of years I’ve felt that the expansion of biodefense labs is related not to research need but to homeland defense money.  If you build it they will come, and a couple of them might be frakking nuts.  Do we not now have enough investment in the study of the most dangerous, but least likely threats? How much more likely do these threats become, due to expanding the numbers of labs people handling them?

On the other hand, if Ivins was our guy, he’s been working in biodefense for nearly 20 years. Who knows when he could have gone over the edge? Would anyone have known? His coworkers seem to have liked him and don’t believe he was responsible, by the statements we’ve seen so far.

It may be that the risk of a deranged scientist is one that we’ve already taken all possible precautions against.  Screenings, protocols, security policies, all of these are already in place. There’s been some discussion of inculcating a “life scientist’s code of ethics” at universities—a noble initiative but will have zero effect on someone who is already there intending to become an insider threat.

I don’t know the answer, but I know that you’re going to be seeing a lot of this hand-wringing in the days and weeks to come.


UPDATE: More opinion at Wired Science and Danger Room.

4 Responses

  1. To be fair, some of us have been all a-flutter about this for many years, see:

    http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2008/08/2001-anthrax-case-shows-homegrown.html

    It’s not malicious errors but accidents and transport that IMO pose the greatest threat. The mad scientist thing is a red herring, I agree, but that doesn’t mean a threat doesn’t exist.

  2. Yes, I realized I should have used something other than “begins” since it obviously began a long time ago. This will just bring it to the top of the media cesspool for a while again.

  3. […] Noah has noted here, biodefense labs have soaked up massive amounts of funding in recent years to deal with precisely this kind of theoretical threat. But the real question, thus […]

  4. […] blogger Bugs n Gas Gal says. "But for at least the last couple of years I’ve felt that the expansion of biodefense labs is related not to research need but to homeland defense money. If you build it they will come, and a couple of them might be frakking nuts.  Do we not now […]

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