In ’93, biological defense program was misguided, poorly managed

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A study by the Center for Public Integrity in 1993 concluded that the United States was ill-served by the nation's investment in biological warfare research. The report, the result of a year-long investigation, found a lack of accountability in the Pentagon's Biological Defense Research Program; it said that while hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent, the United States was failing to respond to the threat of attack by known agents, including anthrax.

While the report is eight years old, its findings and warnings are chilling in light of recent developments.

The report found that 11 years ago, the United States was concerned about vulnerability to biological and chemical attacks.

“ . . . at the tense and fateful juncture of the Persian Gulf conflict despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent and the existence of effective vaccines U.S. military representatives announced that the Pentagon’s supply of vaccines was woefully inadequate even for its own forward-deployed troops, let alone for dissemination to allied troops or threatened civilians.

“The revelation was particularly surprising because the two biological-warfare agents in question were so well known. Bacillus anthracis and botulinum toxin “old chestnuts,” in the words of a senior congressional staff member-were among the most likely agents to encounter in virtually any hostile biological-weapons program. Both of these agents had been well-known for decades and established vaccines (or in the case of botulinum toxin, a vaccine-like antitoxin drug) existed for prophylaxis against each.”

Following is an edited version of the 1993 report’s executive summary.

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AFTER A YEAR of research, we have found the U.S. Army’s Biological Defense Research Program misguided in its aims and poorly managed. These problems are so extreme as to suggest that the BDRP research may actually undermine efforts to control and protect against the heinous threat of biological warfare.

The Biological Defense Research Program has three major goals: It offers U.S. troops medicines, vaccines and other “medical countermeasures” against germ warfare; it sponsors unclassified, prophylactic research on biological warfare threat agents “for peaceful purposes”; and it keeps abreast of developments in the field that might pose potential risk to U.S. troops. Toward these ends, the U.S. military has spent well over $1 billion since World War II — more than half of that since 1984. Despite those outlays, close scrutiny of the BDRP reveals that the Army’s program has fallen far short of all its stated goals.

Over the past decade, the Biological Defense Research Program has:

  • spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on projects of questionable merit and relevance;
  • attracted mostly second-tier scientists whose sparsely published research results have most often appeared in obscure, little-known journals;
  • failed to fulfill its mandate to respond to existing biological warfare threats as manifest in its lack of vaccines against the most obvious and well-known biological threat agents during the Persian Gulf War;
  • failed to offer any effective medical defense against biological warfare;
  • failed to fulfill its stated policy and legal obligation to be open and accountable in its efforts;
  • and finally, engaged in potentially provocative research that increases, rather than reduces the prospects of an international biological arms race.

Meanwhile, the military has consistently failed to train troops adequately in safety and decontamination procedures on the biological battlefield.

Our report reveals a government program that is largely insulated and unaccountable. Under any circumstances, the goal of a medical defense against biological warfare agents is highly questionable. Many leading medical scientists consider it a self-defeating exercise: Intensive research and development on vaccines and drug therapies suggest that protective measures against individual biological weapons can be effective. Yet it is virtually impossible to prepare medical countermeasures to the myriad possible diseases a potential enemy might unleash. The problem is compounded by the prospect that biological warfare agents could be deliberately altered through the tools of genetic engineering. Even with a vaccine or prophylactic treatment, the logistics entailed to inoculate troops and/or civilians far enough in advance to be effective makes successful medical defense doubtful at best. But the problems presented by the BDRP go far beyond its dubious rationale.

Secrecy

International treaty and U.S. law require the Biological Defense Research Program to be open and unclassified. But we found that biological weapons-related research is easily hidden in related medical and chemical-weapons research programs conducted by the military. Even within the BDRP itself, we encountered public-affairs officials who refused to release rudimentary information about the program.

Perhaps more troubling, the BDRP publishes few research results that could indicate the program’s detailed goals and practices. The dozen in-house researchers receiving the most funding (each in excess of $1 million annually) published a combined total of just 19 articles in the open literature in 1991. One researcher, who presided over more than $1.7 million in research funds in 1988 and 1989 alone, co-authored just five articles in the open literature during his nine-year tenure at the BDRP. Notably, his research prior to his work at the BDRP yielded eight published articles in 1980 alone — the year he arrived at the program.

Provocative Research

International and U.S. law prohibit the development or production of biological weapons. Yet at least 25 percent of the research conducted or commissioned by the Biological Defense Research Program is not considered solely defensive in nature by qualified independent scientists. Within the program, we found a predominance of research focused on exotic threat agents — many of which are not even considered legitimate threats by the military’s own intelligence data.

Furthermore, the BDRP conducted this exotic research at the expense of work on medical defenses against known threat agents. And the Army similarly neglected work on defensive measures with demonstrated efficacy, such as development of protective gear, and detection and diagnostic research.

Some BDRP projects appear to offer little pretense of a defensive rationale. One researcher, for example, has created a highly virulent and antibiotic-resistant strain of anthrax. Another has modified the botulism neurotoxin to yield a deadly form of botulism that would be unaffected by conventional vaccines.

Second-rate research

As for the caliber of research undertaken by the BDRP, we discovered a program that allots research awards without the benefit of a strong, independent peer review system. This may account, in part, for our finding that the BDRP attracts mostly second-tier researchers. The program awards only 2 percent of its outside contracts to highly respected biomedical-research institutions.

In biomedical research, the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published represents a critical measure of productivity. Dollar for dollar, the program’s output of published papers runs considerably lower than comparable biomedical-research programs within the National Institutes of Health or research universities. Moreover, BDRP scientists most often publish in obscure journals. We found that some 42 percent of 1991 publications by the BDRP’s top 12 in-house researchers appeared in journals not even among the top 1,000, ranked in order of how frequently they are cited by biomedical scientists. While some research projects would naturally yield fewer articles than others, the failure to publish at anything close to the rate of academic labs conducting related research suggests that either the BDRP’s work is not well designed or that it is considered unimportant by the scientific community.

Malfeasance

Program insiders report cases of outright malfeasance within the BDRP. Several full-time researchers are said to have moonlighted on BDRP time — in one case, owning and operating a liquor store. Others allegedly garner millions of dollars for research they know to be far afield from the mandate of the program.

Such allegations of an abuse of taxpayer funds and of the public trust would be troubling in any government department. In the case of the Biological Defense Research Program, however, much more is at stake than a government boondoggle.

Given the frightening and dangerous nature of this class of weaponry, special attention must be paid to the U.S. commitment to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which bans not only the stockpiling, but even the possession or development of biological weapons. Any efforts that might even appear to undermine this treaty obligation could have grave, destabilizing international implications; any research that even appears provocative may encourage similar work by U.S. adversaries, thereby fostering a biological arms race.

The gravity of these findings suggests that the time may be ripe for a formal re-evaluation of role and activities of the Biological Defense Research Program . As a provocative program that does little to allay domestic or international concerns about its mission, the BDRP may actually endanger our national security. This much is certain, however: As currently configured, the Biological Defense Research Program does little to enhance it.

 

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