February 21, 2003

The United States renounced the “development, production and stockpiling” of biological weapons by signing the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972. This treaty has been ratified by 144 nations and, despite its widely discussed loopholes and ambiguities (1), represents an important first step towards biological disarmament.

The US military has only recently begun to revive investment in biological weapons research and development. In 1981, the Army’s Biological Defense Research Program was a mere $15 million initiative. Under the Bush Sr. Administration, this number reached $80 million in 1991, still a minor investment relative to an overall $316 billion military budget (2). Throughout this period, the Department of Defense provided an annual list of all military laboratories and private contractors conducting defense-related biological research. Although the results of these projects remained classified, their nature and location were provided in detailed accounts to Congress (3). 

Today, the country is facing a new and dangerous set of defense priorities. President Bush has proposed a massive budget to build new laboratories for research on disease-inducing organisms (4). In 2003 alone, the US will spend an estimated $2.9 billion on “counter-terrorism research and development” (R&D), most of which will focus on bio-terrorism (5). In addition, under Project BioShield, the US will allocate $5.9 billion over the next decade to public health infrastructure, military and civilian response preparedness, and work in public and private laboratories with the stated purpose of defending our nation against a biological weapons attack (6). 

Meanwhile, the US has progressively undermined international efforts to abolish biological weapons. In November 2001, at the Fifth Review Conference of the BWC in Geneva, the US rejected a verification protocol for legally binding international inspections and investigations of all parties (7). Under pressure from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, the US this September called for all negotiations over treaty enforcement to be indefinitely halted.

The present political climate has produced a widely accepted rationale for a number of defensive and preventive measures. To respond to a possible biological weapons attack, the United States and other nations need to improve systems of healthcare delivery and global disease surveillance. The ability to rapidly detect disease outbreaks when they occur will enhance the preparedness of our clinics and hospitals (8). But government and news sources tend to focus only on the initiatives that have a clear defensive justification in terms of protecting public health. Much less attention has been paid to the expanding programs of research on biological weapons themselves, which are “dual use” by their very nature—that is, offensive capabilities are necessarily produced in the process of testing or creating defensive measures. For example, to create vaccines or anti-viral agents against many of the most dangerous pathogens and toxins, researchers must first produce such agents in sizable quantities (9). In the name of vaccine development, as many as twenty laboratories in the United States handle, manipulate, and in some cases weaponize, one of the most lethal strains of anthrax. Prominent among these are the Dugway Proving Ground in Salt Lake City, Utah; the US Army Medical Research Unit in Fort Detrick, Maryland; the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC; the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio; the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. A recent genetic analysis published in Science concluded decisively that one of these bio-defense labs was the source of the anthrax spores used in the September 2001 mail attacks that resulted in five deaths and several billion dollars in damage to the US economy (10). 

Research on pathogens, regardless of its purpose, poses a clear danger to public safety and domestic security. Deadly biological agents can escape into the environment through at least three mechanisms. First, there are breakdowns in security. In December, a three-hour total power failure undermined the containment systems at an infectious disease laboratory at Plum Island, New York. Workers had to resort to sealing the doors with duct tape, as the air compressors failed (11). Second, there can be accidental infection of workers, who subsequently spread disease through outside contact. For example, two microbiologists at the Center for Disease Control died in 2001 after being exposed to strains of meningitis bacteria they were researching. Third, there is the obvious risk of intentional release, a prospect the anthrax mailings have made impossible to ignore. Laboratories are filled with disgruntled workers. As MIT biologist Jonathan King recently pointed out, “there are people like me who are paid well, and then there are people … in the basement getting minimum wage, taking care of the dead animals (12).” The fact that there are still no federal “requirements for rigorous background or security clearance checks for those who work in such facilities” (13) is not reassuring. As the expansion of facilities further stretches the capacity to ensure adequate safety and security provisions, we can expect these risks to intensify.

Disclosures by the New York Times of three previously classified bio-weapons projects--including the production of a genetically engineered anthrax strain resistant to existing vaccines and the development of a model bio-weapons delivery system—raise crucial questions about the peaceful or “defensive” intent of the United States (14). By pushing the boundary between defense and offense, whether in purpose or application, these initiatives undermine biological arms control (15). The fears and suspicions generated by high-level research on pathogens and mechanisms for their delivery are likely to fuel global proliferation.

With these concerns and interests in mind, the Council for Responsible Genetics has created a 
Working Group—composed of specialists in the fields of public health, genetics, and arms control—to investigate the implications of the growing US biological defense industry. This group proposes to examine such issues as: the size and scope of various bio-terrorism and bio-defense initiatives, and the changing role of genetic and genomic technologies in these programs; the new relationships and commercial contracts between government agencies and university and corporate laboratories in bio-defense research; and the limits of public access to information on government-funded bio-defense activities.

What most concerns the Council for Responsible Genetics is the degree of secrecy, and lack of public or Congressional oversight, with which these recent R&D activities have been conducted. Resistance to public disclosure of research on biological weapons sends a signal to the rest of the world that the United States has something to hide. The US has made it clear that it will not provide the same transparency on weapons of mass destruction that it expects from Iraq and other so-called “outlaw nations.” This double standard undermines US credibility and standing in the international community. Its elimination requires that all facilities conducting research related to biological weapons or bio-preparedness be declared to the United Nations, with their purposes clarified. The Council for Responsible Genetics therefore calls on the US to open its facilities to international inspection, and to honor its disarmament obligations under the BWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Council also calls on the United States to initiate a review of all of its biological warfare programs with the goal of ending those that, in the name of defense, undermine the BWC and open the door to a biological arms race.



(1) Article 1, for example, permits work on dangerous biological agents for “prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” The lack of consensus on a precise definition of what constitutes such permissible has left the door open for offensive germ warfare programs to be carried out under the cover of a purportedly defensive purpose.

(2) Center for Defense Information (, Federation of American Scientists (

(3) Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, “Defending Against Biodefence: The Need for Limits,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 70, February/March 2003, p. 1-6.

(4) Eileen Choffnes, “Bioweapons: New Labs, More Terror?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2002, p. 29-32.

(5) Kei Koizumi, “An Overview of Federal Funding of Biodefense Research for FY 2003,” Presentation to the AAAS Conference on Federal Biodefense Research, December 3, 2002.

(6) Eunice Moscoso, “Bush Pushes Vaccine Plan for Bioterror; ‘BioShield’ Would Cost $6 billion,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 4, 2003, p. A3.

(7) Peter Slevin, “US Drops Bid to Strengthen Germ Warfare Accord,” Washington Post, September 19, 2002, p. A1.

(8) For a discussion of prevention and public health measures, see Victor Sidel, “Defense Against Biological Weapons: Can Immunization and Secondary Prevention Succeed?” in Susan Wright, ed. Biological Warfare and Disarmament (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 77-101.

(9) See Laura Reed and Seth Shulman, “A Perilous Path to Security?: Weighing U.S. “Biodefense” against Qualitative Proliferation,” in Susan Wright, ed. Biological Warfare and Disarmament (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 57-76.

(10) Timoty D. Read, et al, “Comparative Genomic Sequencing for Discovery of Novel Polymorphisms in Bacillus anthracis,” Science, June 14, 2002, Vol. 296, p. 2028-2033.

(11) Marc Santora, “Power Fails for Three Hours at Plum Island Infectious Disease Lab,” New York Times, December 20, 2002, p. B1.

(12) Jonathan King, “Biological Defense is Just Another Name for Offensive Weapons,” GeneWatch, March 2002, p. 8.

(13) ibid 4, at 32.

(14) Judith Miller, Stephen Engleberg & William J. Broad, “US Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. A1.

(15) See discussion by former government lawyers in Judith Miller, “When Is Bomb Not a Bomb? Germ Experts Confront US,” New York Times, September 5, 2001, p. A5

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