Biological Arms Races, Biocontainment Labs, Hazards and Assessments

No one wants peace more than a soldier who’s been to war. Military men were my first heroes, my first saints. My darling Dad earned a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and a chest-full of campaign ribbons and medals. My childhood “hometowns” were Army posts scattered around the U.S., and Japan and Germany.  I went to twelve different schools before college. A civilian now, I’ve listened nostalgically for twenty years to the bugled sounds of Taps floating in my bedroom window near Ft. Detrick.


My husband and good friends working at Ft. Detrick convinced me long ago that the technicians and scientists there have the best intentions, the highest skills, admirable goals, and very conscientious safety precautions.


Unfortunately, they’ve not been able to convince me that the planned Level 3 and 4 labs will be safe in Frederick. The record shows that research lab workers, even those with the highest security clearances and the best available training, are still fallible human beings who can and do become victims of blackmail, fall in love unwisely, get into desperate financial situations, hide growing prescription and other drug problems, and develop volatile feelings about co-workers. Lab workers sometimes become blind to their own religious and political biases and bigotry, and are thus susceptible to involvement in illicit covert operations, conspiracies and cover-ups.


Sometimes they get in a hurry and make professionally embarrassing mistakes and bad decisions. Sometimes they hide evidence, fudge records and fake procedures in order to save their jobs and livelihoods, and then rationalize the risks they’re taking—escalating and exponentially complicating situations already perilous.


Also sadly, no one yet has been able to explain to me why it wouldn’t be easy, temptingly easy, to kamikaze an airplane flown from the Frederick Airport into a targeted Ft. Detrick building, or lob a well-placed rocket over the Ft. Detrick fence. Either of these unpreventable actions would very legitimately throw chaos and panic into the post, city and metropolitan area, creating unforeseen, complicated, dangerous situations.


Scientists in these labs will be genetically-engineering (from diseases with no cures), completely new, highly lethal and contagious life forms, life, life so new that no one yet understands how it works. What if a newly-mutated strain somehow finds a way to attach itself to a lab worker in some unpredictable way, some way that defeats the protections put on it, so that the lab workers carry it outside unknowingly? I plead for humility in the face of nature’s chaotic, awesome genetic power.


Furthermore, if we build the facility, we’ll scare other countries into creating their own labs, creating something like an arms race with ourselves, and increasing the threat. I can’t think why Detrick’s scientists, or the Post Commander, would welcome such dangerous projects, which only complicate, compromise and jeopardize all the other crucially important and valuable research currently being done at USAMRIID and elsewhere on post.


I know we can’t avoid all risks in today’s angry and violent world, but we can avoid adding recklessly to their sum. We can choose not to consolidate, in a metropolitan area, an unpredictable mix of risky components with an infinite potential for dangerous permutations.


I was almost raped as a young mother. A very caring policeman later sternly warned me, “Don’t be so stupid as to leave your window-shade up! You’re attracting every pervert in the county. Eventually, they’ll all make a beeline to your window!”


These labs leave the window-shades in Frederick up. Their very existence in Frederick asks, perhaps begs, for trouble, and that trouble will make its dangerous beeline straight to our area.


Before we expose huge populations to catastrophic risks with BSL 3 & 4 labs, we need to ask why. If someone does attack the U.S. with biologicals, what is the likelihood that we’ll have the right vaccine, in enough quantities, available when it is needed? Wouldn’t we have to vaccinate people before the threat reaches them? Perhaps an antidote, not a vaccine, will be needed. And how much vaccine, and when, would be considered a good solution? And who would be vaccinated? Only the government? The military? The medical community?  Who might our solution actually save?


And finally, has anyone examined the probability that these risky efforts can even be successful? We’re considering exposing huge populations to catastrophic risks. For what? If someone does attack the U.S. with biologicals, what is the likelihood that we’ll have the right vaccine, in enough quantities, available when it’s needed?


None of my concerns are even mentioned in the current USAMRIID hazard assessment, much less addressed.


What is needed is a mature, high-quality thought process developing an informed equation comparing the risks and costs of the potential biowarfare threat itself with the risks and costs of attempting to address the threat. At what point are they equal?


Merely by building such facilities, aren’t we unreasonably augmenting the threat? Aren’t we creating/driving a biological arms race with ourselves, since other threatened countries will feel it necessary to build their own labs, requiring us to expand ours again in an expensive, pointless, dangerous, ineffective, wasteful and infinite cycle?


Here is what a credible, predictive and useful BSL 3 & 4 hazard assessment might look like:


1. Estimate the cost of the planned response to perceived Biological Warfare (BW) threats

   –  List the possible negative events which inspired the proposed solution.

   –  Estimate the probability of each negative event occurring.

   –  Estimate the impact of each negative event, if it occurred.

   –  Estimate the risk (the probability of occurrence times impact) of each negative event.

   –  Estimate the expected cost associated with these possible negative events (some sort of group probability—a statistician would be required.)

   –  Estimate the actual costs of responding to perceived BW threats (labs, people, security, maintenance, upgrades, social, political, other costs…)

   –  Add actual and expected costs.


2. Estimate the benefits of the suggested solution (which is essentially a list of the costs of the negative events that would happen to the U.S. as a result of the perceived BW activities of other countries, assuming that the U.S. does nothing to ward off such possibilities.)


3. List the additional possible negative events that could happen to the U.S. as a result of other countries’ feeling threatened by our new labs and then building similar BW efforts, including the costs of expanding the U.S. response to these rising threats.


4. Using the list produced in step #3, proceed with the steps described in #1 above to determine the benefits of the planned solution.


5. After completing steps #3 and #4 above, we would have an informed decision-makers’ estimate of the costs and benefits of the planned response to the perceived BW threats.


6.  Evaluate the assumption that the planned solution to the perceived BW threats would actually be effective, (i.e., what is the likelihood of the US having an appropriate and effective vaccine or antidote ready when it was actually needed during a BW event? Etc.)


7. As a final step, do a sensitivity analysis.  Determine how much the result of the cost/benefit analysis above would change as a result of changes in the assumptions used to create it.


8. At what point does the risk of the threat itself equal the risk of trying to address the threat?


Essentially, we need to develop an equation, a model, which will allow decision-makers to make a practical and informed comparison weighing and comparing the risks and costs of the BW threat itself to the risks and costs of addressing the threat. A mature, high-quality thought process comparing the risks with the solution would allow for decision-makers’ discussions, and even some disagreement about the assumptions and decisions, but at least all involved would be assured that all issues were addressed in a systematic way.


Sometimes the “costs” in the above equation would be expressed in terms of dollars, sometimes in terms of human life, sometimes in terms of political costs, i.e., international opinion, good faith, trust, health, environmental costs, social costs, risks of increased anger, terrorism, war, etc. A complete list of costs and risks would of course also include the cost of the additional threats which will inevitably emerge as a result of the U.S. building such a facility to address the perceived threats. The list of expected monetary costs should thus include the costs of building the facilities, securing them, running them, maintaining them, and upgrading them again and again as response-threats spiral. Do we really want to start this death-spiral?