U.S. Bioweapons Research: Are Anthrax Lab Accidents All We Have to Fear?

Biopolitical Times
With safety bio hazard clothing and masks, someone touches another human figure that is also dressed in biohazard gear.

In the latest laboratory incident involving potential bioterror pathogens, the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds laboratory in Utah accidentally shipped live anthrax to labs in nine states across the U.S. and one in South Korea. News of the mishap has sparked renewed concern about the ability of the U.S. government to adequately safeguard the public from lethal pathogens being studied by the military.

Pentagon assurances that they have secured all the samples and that there is no known risk to the general public do not entirely allay concerns. Mishaps involving loss or release of bacteria, viruses, and toxins reported by U.S. laboratories to the Centers for Disease Control number more than 200 incidents per year. Some of them have harmed researchers and surrounding communities.

Many observers, including scientists and government officials, rightly focus on the inadequacies of lab safety culture. The Dugway anthrax debacle, for example, was the result of lab personnel not properly verifying that the anthrax had been inactivated before shipping it.

However, focusing too much on lab accidents and mishaps obscures the more fundamental issue of why the U.S. is producing these pathogens in the first place.

Research into pathogens like anthrax that are potential biological weapons, known as biodefense, is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It is limited by the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention to scientific, therapeutic, and defensive purposes. This binding international treatyoutlaws any research for offensive military ends. Yet, herein lies the dilemma: Biodefense research includes not only the development of exclusively defensive measures such as vaccines against biological weapons, but also producing bioweapons in order to test the efficacy of countermeasures. (The Dugway anthrax was, in fact, produced and shipped to labs to test their new detection kits.)

Biodefense research is, effectively, part of the U.S.’s already substantial arms arsenal. As such, it augments U.S. military power, enabling the U.S. to act with virtual impunity in forcefully securing its strategic and economic interests globally. Since 2001, federal funding of biodefense research, driven by the post 9-11 political climate, increased dramatically, tripling between 2001 and 2002. These high levels of funding have been maintained through the present day.

It is time for the U.S. to reverse its buildup of biological arms in the name of biodefense and to engage, instead, in disarmament. The U.S. should also, as with other international disarmament agendas, renounce its exceptionalist orientation in favor of even-handed scrutiny of its own programs, to the same degree that it applies to weapons control by other countries.

Much of the funding currently being directed at biodefense could be better allocated to research for medical purposes, or better yet improvement of public health infrastructure. Such a shift—away from biological weapons production and the inevitable accidents that accompany it—will go a much longer way towards improving public health and safety.

Gwen D’Arcangelis is an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary General Education at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is an activist scholar whose work explores the social dimensions of bioscience and biotechnology, in particular their intersections with gender, race, and imperialism. D’Arcangelis is author of the forthcoming article “Defending White Scientific Masculinity: the FBI, the Media and Profiling Tactics during the Post-9/11 Anthrax Investigation” (2015 in International Feminist Journal of Politics). D’Arcangelis also engages in community-based research and work in environmental justice.