Weapons Labs Biological Research Raises Concerns

Jeremy Patterson

Two U.S. nuclear weapons labs are opening biological research labs capable of studying more dangerous pathogens, raising concerns about the U.S. ability to meet demands for transparency in line with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

On Jan. 25, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory began operating a new Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) research lab. In addition, Los Alamos National Laboratory is scheduled to complete a federally mandated environmental study on a similar lab in August 2008, enabling the lab to begin operations soon thereafter, if the study findings are favorable.

Biosafety level classifications are established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to denote the level of danger associated with handling particular biological pathogens and proper procedures for working with them. The most dangerous agents, such as Ebola, are classified as BSL-4 in part because there is no known cure. A rating of BSL-3 indicates that the lab is equipped to handle infectious agents that may cause serious or fatal illness if inhaled. Agents rated at BSL-2 are not transmissible via inhalation and are often less hazardous in terms of the infections they may cause. For example, anthrax is normally a BSL-2 pathogen but necessitates a BSL-3 environment if it is in pure cultures or is aerosolized because it is then an inhalation threat.

Each national laboratory currently operates BSL-2 labs, and the new facilities mark the first time either laboratory has conducted or will conduct BSL-3 studies on-site.

These labs also will study select agents, which are pathogens that pose a serious threat to public health and safety and may be biological terrorism or biological weapons threats, including anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, plague, Rickettsia, tularemia, and valley fever. Due to the potential national security ramifications, labs conducting research on select agents are required by the CDC to implement physical and personnel security measures in addition to the normal BSL safeguards.

The labs are permitted to do some research on these agents under the BWC. The convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents; but it does allow researchers to work with limited quantities of certain types of dangerous agents solely for “prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” For example, scientists might use an agent in creating vaccines or defenses against potential biological weapons.

It is difficult for outsiders to determine if a country is engaging in offensive or defensive biological weapons research, putting a premium on transparency and confidence-building measures to reassure the international community that a state is complying with its BWC obligations. Outside groups have raised concerns that locating the new BSL-3 labs in weapons facilities will make it difficult to convince other countries of the peaceful intent of U.S. research. They also worry that constructing these labs in such facilities may be undermining U.S. efforts to limit other countries’ research into biological agents that could potentially be used as biological weapons.

Lynda Seaver, a spokesperson for the Lawrence Livermore lab, sought to assuage such concerns, telling Arms Control Today Feb. 12 that the United States is “a signatory to the Biowarfare Convention and does not conduct bioweapons research.” She also said that “the bulk of the work done at the BSL-3 [lab] will be unclassified.”

However, a spokesperson for the CDC told Arms Control Today Feb. 15 that there are security-related restrictions on sharing select agents research. Considerable physical security measures in place at Lawrence Livermore could further bar transparency.

According to documents filed by the Department of Energy Jan. 25, the BSL-3 lab at Lawrence Livermore is capable of holding rodents and conducting “aerosol challenges” of them using infectious agents or biologically derived toxins. The lab is also equipped to produce small amounts of biological material such as DNA using infectious agents and genetically modified agents.

The labs are part of a major increase in governmental biological defense research since the anthrax attacks of 2001. In the past five years, the National Institutes of Health have spent more than $1 billion constructing new BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs. The Department of Homeland Security is scheduled later this year to complete construction on the $141 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) in Frederick, Md., and is planning an additional $500 million animal research facility. Both will have BSL-3 and BSL-4 capabilities.

According to Seaver, the Lawrence Livermore lab will be mainly conducting research under a “work for others” arrangement for the Homeland Security Department as part of the department’s national mission for bioterrorism defense, although Lawrence Livermore is in discussions to conduct research for other agencies in public health areas.

The Homeland Security Department’s NBACC will conduct threat assessment research, a controversial type of biological research in which new types of biological weapons are produced by researchers in order to determine their potential viability and how one might defend against them. Some outside experts say that such research is of tenuous legal standing from the perspective of the BWC.

In 2002, when construction began, each national laboratory argued that the new BSL-3 labs were needed because outside labs are often committed to other projects or are not well equipped for the desired work. The situation has greatly changed since then. A 2007 Government Accountability Office report noted that, since 2001, the number of BSL-4 labs in the United States has increased from five to 15. (See ACT, November 2007. ) The number of BSL-3 labs has undergone a similar expansion; more than 1,350 are registered with the Select Agents Program, and many more are known to exist outside the program.

Research at the labs will be conducted under the oversight of the respective Institutional Biosafety Committees of each national laboratory, which must include at least two members of the public. The labs will be subject to periodic inspections by the CDC to verify compliance with the Select Agents rules. However, the labs will not be under the jurisdiction of any oversight mechanisms designed to ensure or publicize compliance with the BWC or U.S. laws governing its implementation other than internal Homeland Security Department review boards.