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July 27, 2008

United States of America

BioResearch: The Risk/Reward Ratio

Examining Hazards and Benefits of Biological Defense Facilities And Associated Research

By Jay Fraser | July 27, 2008

In the field of science and technology research, the stakes are usually a lot higher than the athletic platitude of “no pain, no gain.” In S&T, the risk/reward ratio becomes a guiding consideration when evaluating the merits of an effort. Speaking from my personal experience in research and development of technology, every effort contains a ratio of risk and reward. The question is whether the projected or envisioned end result is worth the time and effort expended. At the same time, considering issues surrounding the Global War on Terror, it is absolutely essential that the unimaginable be imagined. The question is whether the consequences of doing (or not doing) something is worth the risk. Without question, unpredictable events can and will occur. Thus, we have to be prepared for a wide range of possibilities.

Since 1954 when Plum Island was given by the US Army to the Department of Agriculture to study Foot and Mouth Disease following disease outbreaks in Mexico and Canada, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) has operated as a bio-safety level-3 (BSL-3) laboratory. According to the Department of Homeland Security web site, a BSL-3 is a laboratory that studies and thus stores “[m]icroorganisms present in the United States, and foreign and emerging agents that may cause serious consequences in livestock but are not harmful to human beings because of available protective measures.”

But it isn’t really that simple or simplistic. The ownership of the Plum Island facility was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security as one of the provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. What followed was Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 (HSPD-9) that brought into motion the creation of a facility that would conduct not only research and development on mitigation strategies for the animal diseases previously studied by the Plum Island facility, but to also expand its scope to study zoonotic diseases (those diseases that impact both animals and human beings). This raised the specter of the need to require a facility that could study not only BSL-3, but also BSL-4 diseases. According the the DHS reference cited above, BSL-4 diseases are “[m]icroorganisms that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease and for which there is no known vaccine or therapy.”

A number of BSL-4 laboratories already exist in the United States performing various types of high-risk research. There have been few known accidents or critical releases from a level 4 facility in the U.S. (One exception was the escaped baboon from the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in San Antonio Texas in July 2006, but not known to be from the Level 4 part of the lab. It should also be noted that the escapee was never out of the sight of his keepers, and that it was the first breach in 16 years at the SFBR.) Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of conspiracy theorists and doomsayers that argue strenuously against the creation of any National Bio and Agro-Defense facility. Without differentiating between BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories, and further, without actually substantiating the hazard, those in strident objection are vehemently opposed to the establishment of the NBAF anywhere beyond that which could be rebuilt on Plum Island (noting that there is limited if any support from the community for this to occur).

Two anti-research organizations of note have existed; the Sunshine Project (which inexplicably suspended operations in February 2008) and a less subtle organization called Stop the NBAF (specifically anti-NBAF in North Carolina), both of which have publicized the mistakes and accidents that have occurred. Make no mistake about it, however, there have been other accidents that have occurred and became visible because of the pending decisions about the NBAF. These included:

• the power outage at the Center for Disease Control Level 4 facility in the Summer of 2007, but the lab was not operational at the time of the outage.

• the unreported accidental exposure of workers at Texas A&M’s Level 3 laboratory to brucellosis during an experiment (BSL-3).

Some very dangerous and virile diseases will be studied at both the BSL-3 and BSL-4 elements of the new NBAF. The real question lies in whether the risk (that has been mitigated in the security and safeguards parts of the plans to build the facility) outweighs the benefits of studying and potentially solving the puzzles of how to tame these viruses before they become threats to the human populations.

Diseases Studied in BSL-3 Facilities
• Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)

• Classical Swine Fever (CSF)

• African Swine Fever (ASF)

• Rift Valley Fever (RVF)

• Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia (CBPP)

• Japanese Encephalitis (JE) Virus

Diseases Studied in BSL-4 Facilities

• Nipah Virus

• Hendra Virus

It should be recognized that 10.9% of the space allocated at the new NBAF will be used for BSL-4 research, with nearly ¾ of the space being used for BSL-3 work. Some of the other issues are discussed below.

The result of HSPD-9 was the initiation of a program, the National Agro and Bio-Defense Facility with the objective of replacing and upgrading the animal research center on Plum Island.

HSPD-9 tasked the Secretaries of Agriculture and Homeland Security to develop a plan to provide safe, secure, and state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories for research and development of diagnostic capabilities and medical countermeasures for foreign animal and zoonotic diseases. To partially meet these obligations, DHS has requested Congress to appropriate funds to construct a new facility, the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF). This facility would house high-containment laboratories able to handle the pathogens currently under investigation at PIADC, as well as other pathogens of interest.

The Federal Register of January 18, 2006 was the first moment in a mad and expensive dash by almost 2-dozen locations to respond to the Request for an Expression of Interest.

This Request for Expressions of Interest resulted in submissions by 29 different sites from which the DHS then selected 12 Consortia that comprised 18 potential sites for follow-on evaluations. When the second down-selection decision was made on July 11, 2007, various groups in the finalist areas became sensitized the possibility that their community might be the “winner” in the NBAF lottery. It is on this background that the questions of research and the risk/reward ratio can be discussed.

There are five finalist cities plus the so-called “no-decision, decision” in which the NBAF could be re-built on Plum Island. The finalist areas are South Milledge Avenue Site, Athens, Georgia; Manhattan Campus Site, Manhattan, Kansas; Flora Industrial Park Site, Flora, Mississippi; Plum Island Site, Plum Island, New York; Umstead Research Farm Site, Butner, North Carolina; Texas Research Park Site, San Antonio, Texas. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security published its much awaited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

On September 11, 2007, an open public forum was held in San Antonio, Texas. Other, similar public forums were held in each of the down-selected areas. At these open meetings, people from the communities had the opportunity to voice their support or outrage at the possible locating of the NBAF in their city. I attended only the meeting in my city. At the time, there were very few negative statements made, while I’m told that in other areas, especially in North Carolina and in Georgia, there was an outspoken opposition. Since that time, even before the release of the EIS, a number of issues have come to the surface.

Since the release of the EIS, the most substantial issue that has been raised is the use of a mainland facility that might increase the risk of a release of foot and mouth disease. Related, sub-issues were:

• It is now argued, following the release of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that risk assessments of moving a laboratory studying animal diseases near cattle herds have not been done. Further, it is being used by opponents that the DHS supposedly did not have the “right” data available when they made the decision to move the Plum Island replacement on-shore.

• A mainland facility will be at a higher risk of terrorism than a facility on an island.

Both arguments are compelling, yet should be seen through a number of filters. These “filters” would include whether the research community has learned nothing about risk mitigation, safety and security safeguards around such facilities. Additionally, there truly needs to be a question raised as to whether or not an island or a mainland facility is more or less vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Logically, if a terrorist wanted to attack an island facility, its ability to do so exists (the attacks of September 11th, I believe, prove that virtually anything is possible, and that if we do not imagine the unimaginable, then events even more unimaginable may occur).

Further to these, it is also worthy to note that currently, legislation exists that bans the study of Foot and Mouth Disease on the mainland. Therefore locating the NBAF on the mainland would require permission from the Department of Agriculture to do so. This is a result of the circumstance that when the ownership of Plum Island was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secretary of agriculture retained the authority to prevent Foot and Mouth Disease research from being conducted on the mainland. Legislation is pending in Congress to allow this to occur. It has been estimated that a leak of Foot and Mouth Disease from the facility could result in $2.8 billion to $4.2 billion in economic losses.

By law, research on live foot and mouth disease (FMD) virus is not permitted on the U.S. mainland. This policy would need to be changed before DHS could conduct FMD research at NBAF if it were sited on the U.S. mainland. The conference agreement to the 2008 farm bill, H.R. 2419, as well as H.R. 1717, address possession of live FMD virus by DHS.

So the question remains, are the levels of risk associated with the NBAF in general, and the location of the facility on the mainland instead of an off-shore island facility in or out of balance with the reward of developing effective countermeasures to the diseases? I could, but will not, draw upon course work that I recently completed for Department Homeland Security certification in “Enhanced Threats and Risk Assessment” to show how land-based versus island locations have relatively similar risk levels for terrorism. But then, it would also hold that an assessment for man-made or natural disasters would also need to be provided. As Hurricane Rita approached the Texas coast in 2005, University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) went through a series of shutdowns in both their BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories as a preventative measure, and actually relocated many of their high risk experiments to the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio (including research on such viruses as that which causes hemorrhagic fever).

Why is it important that a National Bio Agro Defense Facility exist? Setting aside for a moment any possible man-made or terrorist release of a zoonotic disease, over the 4th of July weekend, it was reported that another outbreak of brucellosis (which causes pregnant cattle to abort their young) occurred in the bison her in Yellowstone Park.

There is no effective brucellosis vaccine for wildlife, and cattle vaccines are only 60 to 70 percent effective. Humans are susceptible to the disease, but cases are rare and usually limited to those who work with infected cattle. Eradicated everywhere else in the nation, brucellosis surfaced seven times in the Yellowstone area this decade, including twice since mid-June. With the recent cases, Montana ranchers near Yellowstone face severe restrictions on out-of-state cattle sales, and Wyoming ranchers could face a similar fate if another cow in the state tests positive for brucellosis in the next two years.

CONCLUSION

In summary, yes there are risks associated with performing research on high risk zoonotic diseases. And yes, there are risks associated with performing Foot and Mouth Disease on the mainland. Protecting the U.S. food supply requires elite scientists devoting attention to detecting and countering outbreaks of foreign animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. In addition to potential threats that could devastate livestock herds, the scientists will work on others diseases that can jump from animals to people. How likely is it that hundreds of world class scientists will want to travel to work each day to an off-shore island laboratory? Or still, how likely is it that they will want to house themselves and their families in an off-shore location?

However, on May 22 in his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Gary Voogt, President-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association not only called for and supported the creation of a state of the art research facility to study the effect of potentially devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease to our cattle population he is confident we have adequate technological containment ability already. Perhaps most importantly in the context of this current debate was his statement that “[w]e believe modern bio-containment technology is adequate to protect our industry and to allow for safe research and diagnostics, regardless of location.”

The establishment of a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) is both necessary and wise, and should be supported. The risks of inaction on this front far outweigh the mitigated risks associated with such a facility. Though no facility of any type - in any industry or science - can be guaranteed absolute infallibility, we have the technological means to reasonably assure the safe operation of such a facility today, and we likewise clearly have the need for the benefits a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would provide.

July 11, 2008

Iran

Countering The Iranian Threat

Emerging Military Alliances Between Israeli and Western Forces

By C. Hart | July 11, 2008

Iranian missile testing at night in the Persian Gulf; Israeli jet fighters practicing long-range military exercises over Mediterranean waters; stepped-up American naval maneuvers in the Straits of Hormuz and missile defense testing of U.S. communications equipment in the Middle East – all telltale signs of preparations for war in the region...

Until recently, no nation but Israel has wanted to talk about a military option against Iran, as the Islamic Republic races to finish its controversial nuclear program. While events in early July have changed international perceptions, it has taken a long time for Western nations to re-align their thinking on the Iranian threat.

A History Worth Noting

In the past, Israel’s desire to see the international community adopt a more urgent tone about the Iranian nuclear crisis was met with mixed responses. On one hand, U.S. and European leaders had willingly met with Israeli officials to discuss unprecedented upgrades in strategic cooperation on all levels. Yet on the other, while much was going on behind the scenes, the public heard continued assurances from international leaders that the diplomatic track of stiffer UN sanctions against Iran was the only initiative on the table.

A major difference between the U.S. and Israel had much to do with American officials thinking the window of opportunity to stop Iran was wider and longer than what Israel anticipated. Israel’s intelligence data gathered on Iran was measured against U.S. intelligence reports of when the Persian state might be capable of “going nuclear.” The conclusion was that the Americans were not as convinced as the Israelis that it was necessary to prepare for war while continuing with diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence officials faced another quandary. Did a military transaction take place between Russia and Iran that could hinder Israel’s ability to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran, if necessary? Israeli media reported that Russia allegedly sold Iran an advanced air defense missile system that could track dozens of targets, simultaneously, which might endanger potential measures by Israel’s Air Force (IAF). Threatening Israel’s qualitative edge, the deployment of this system into Iran could have major repercussions for the Jewish state. Therefore, for Israel, the window of opportunity became much shorter, with the IAF looking at a possible strike into Iran before Russian delivery of the system.

Persisting in his urgency to persuade the U.S. of the magnitude of the Iranian threat, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly talked to visiting U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in May 2008 about the need for a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. Olmert wanted American warships to limit the movement of Iranian merchant vessels in the Gulf. However, Israel’s objective to compel the U.S. to intimidate Iran militarily was overshadowed by more pressing issues for the Americans -- the presidential race, an economic slump, and critical weather conditions causing tornadoes, floods, and fires across the States.

Pressing For A Change of Direction

Then, in June, Israel carried out massive military exercises in the Mediterranean, gaining global media attention, and partially accomplishing what the government in Jerusalem had hoped for -- international recognition of Israel’s need to prepare for a confrontation with Iran. These exercises, which spanned 1500 miles between Israel and Greece (duplicating the distance between Israel and Iran), followed less known Israeli military exercises in North America, Italy, and Spain.

Subsequently, the government announced that the distribution of gas masks to the Israeli public could occur as early as January 2009 (instead of the original projection of spring 2009). A race against the clock to get the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system in place earlier than the anticipated 2010 deadline was also implemented, with contractors asked to work on the Sabbath pending rabbinical approval. (The Iron Dome system is expected to deter short-range missiles fired by Iranian proxies -- Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon.)

In addition, Israeli military officials implored the Pentagon to release the sale of F-22 and F-35 military jets to Israel, some of the most advanced fighters in the world.

But, despite Israel’s preparations and urgent warnings, U.S. leaders were still not prepared to go beyond talking, publicly, about diplomatic sanctions against Iran. And, while admitting that the military option was somewhere on the table, it generally remained on the back burner of American thinking.

Leaks to the media in June then revealed that U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen had been in Israel twice to talk with defense officials about Iran. His visit followed an unprecedented number of high level U.S. military officers visiting the Jewish state, including two four-star American generals.

Standing By Israel

The hesitancy on the part of U.S. officials to admit a possible partnership with Israel towards a military conflagration in the Middle East has had much to do with fears of repercussion. Iran has threatened that, if attacked, it would cut off global oil interests in the Persian Gulf, which could result in soaring oil prices in the future. A global escalation in oil prices is already occurring, and Americans can feel it in their pockets every time they fill up their cars at the local gas station. The U.S. is concerned about how another war in the Middle East might impact an already uncertain economy in recession.

Until now, Middle East analysts in the States, commenting on the Iranian threat, have demonstrated their own tentativeness to speak about what might happen if Israel acted alone against the Persian state. Would America stand by Israel? Few commentators have wanted to talk about that possibility. Instead, “think tank” experts have wavered back and forth about the pros and cons of what would happen if the U.S., itself, got involved in an attack on Iran, as if Israel would sit on the sidelines and not be involved in such a scenario.

At a forum hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 30, 2008, ThreatsWatch asked U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, 18th District of Florida), “Will the U.S. Congress stand by Israel in support of helping Israel militarily if there needs to be a confrontation against Iran in the future?” Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen answered, “If that were to happen, I would be standing by Israel’s side. So many members would. But, I do not perceive that happening.”

This reinforced Israeli feelings that U.S. interests were dictating a push, publicly, toward further diplomatic sanctions against Iran without a serious commitment toward launching a military offensive.

America's Hesitancy To Open A "Third Front"

As the debate raged on and U.S. citizens considered military actions vs. continued diplomacy, media outlets revealed that American naval officers in the Middle East had been engaging in new military drills. Reports indicated that the U.S. navy carried out communications testing of its Aegis missile defense system in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf during a visit to Israel by its chief officers in late June.

But, despite U.S. naval testing, Admiral Mullen warned that an attack on Iran would open a "third front" in the Middle East, which he considered a bad idea. His hesitancy regarding further U.S. military engagement in the region was, most likely, due to America's extensive commitment in Iraq as well as ongoing operations in Afghanistan. US forces are already heavily committed with losses incurred since 2001. Furthermore, his comments confirmed that there is a limit to the American population's willingness to get involved in another war overseas.

Pentagon officials for some time now have tried to discourage Israeli leaders from escalating tensions with Iran, or from publicly speaking about the hope of a Western alliance in any future military venture. America’s leaders have acknowledged that for years resources have already been spread too thin in field operations. They have understood that their armed forces overseas, as well as their naval fleets, would be likely targets for direct Iranian retaliation or for terrorist strikes from an Iranian proxy should a war begin.

Until recently, it seemed that the U.S. Bush Administration was divided from within, with reports claiming that the Pentagon was holding back on the idea of an operation against Iran, while Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to be embracing it. Additionally, a wave of short-lived optimism floated in the global media that maybe Iran might retreat from its nuclear ambitions in lieu of the latest round of sanctions imposed on it by the UN. But, so far, that optimism hasn’t led to a confession by the Iranian government that it will obey the demands of the international community and stop enriching uranium.

Before July 2008, Israelis began to wonder if America would publicly align itself with Israel in a serious commitment towards confronting Iran to insure global stability. Moreover, what concerned many Israeli citizens in this deliberation was whether the U.S. would give Israel the proper IFF military codes to be able to fly over Iraq and Turkey, if the Jewish state had to act alone in a war with Iran.

Building Towards A Western Coalition

Finally, change on the Iranian issue began to surface, publicly, during the first days of July, when Iran’s leaders threatened that, if attacked, Tehran would respond by seizing control of the Straits of Hormuz. These statements compelled American naval officials to declare their objections. They responded by stating that Iran would not be able to choke off the Straits of Hormuz and hold 40% of the world’s oil hostage. Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff said that the U.S. would not allow Iran to close the Straits.

On July 9 and 10, Iran tested long-range missiles at night near the Straits. This new act of belligerence may have altered the American public discourse regarding the Iranian issue.... at least for a period of time. Currently, calls for increased diplomatic sanctions against Iran have faded away, replaced by an escalation in saber-rattling and public pronouncements that there is a need for Western powers to prepare to fight against this new Iranian antagonism.

For years, Israeli leaders have been united in declaring that Iran would not be allowed to “go nuclear”. Now, there are new factors taking place, much to Israel’s satisfaction. As U.S. officials declare they will not allow Iran to close off the Straits of Hormuz, a Western military coalition to deal with Iran seems to be gaining momentum.

This development can be seen to be reinforced when, after Iran’s recent testing of ballistic missiles, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately declared America’s commitment to stand by Israel in the face of Iranian aggression. Rice and Czech Republic Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg signed an agreement allowing America to deploy a controversial U.S. missile defense shield on Czech soil. In a coordinated effort, Rice and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pronounced that the anti-missile defense system needed to be placed in Europe, and insisted that Russia re-consider its objections. The system would protect Europe, as well as U.S. forces in the region from Iranian hostilities. But, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has threatened that it will respond militarily if the U.S.-Czech agreement is ratified.

Puzzled by Russia’s reaction Paulo Casaca, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal told ThreatsWatch, “Europe did not take a position on the shield. Therefore, we really do not know what Europe is about to do. I think this shield will be important for Europe, but it will not deter Iran.”

A key component in this all-out effort of Israel to encourage a Western led military coalition against Iran, will be whether Europe accepts the defense shield. It also depends on Europe’s willingness to face the Iranian threat with more than diplomatic sanctions. Casaca acknowledged, “All the military demonstrations by Iran coupled with its persistent daily threats against Israel, make a strong case for answering to Iran. I think that the European position is more or less, ‘don’t put us in the picture, but we could understand that some pre-emptive strike against nuclear facilities in Iran will take place.’ This is what more or less is being heard from European leaders.”

The "New Union"

An opportunity to discuss Iran’s latest tactics is expected during a conference of 44 countries in Paris on July 13. French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, who is also the rotating President of the EU, is trying to form a new union of European and Mediterranean countries, hoping for greater strategic relationships. The EU and Israel have upgraded their economic, trade and education ties. And, Israel has curried favor with European nations such as France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., resulting in a stronger partnership of mutual interests.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy’s conference is controversial because European leaders think he is side-stepping the EU to set up an additional union, one which they feel is not necessary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed strong opposition. She doesn’t want to see Europe separated into another bloc, which includes some European and Mediterranean nations and excludes others. EU members have also protested Sarkozy’s plans because they say it drains funds for crucial EU projects.

Meanwhile, Arab countries don’t want Israel to use the new union to try and establish closer diplomatic ties without dealing first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Olmert hopes to meet Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Paris, signaling that peace negotiations are moving forward on the Golan Heights. This could further infuriate Arab leaders who already think peace negotiations between Israel and Syria are overshadowing a firm “land for peace” deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Despite objections to Sarkozy’s plan for a new union, it could be the basis for an emerging alliance of European and Arab states who, along with Israel and the U.S., determine what to do strategically about Iran before time runs out. Leaders will be sitting together at the French negotiating table in the Grand Palais with other rooms available for private talks. Whether hidden from public view or not, the topic of Iranian aggression in the Middle East region is certain to dominate some discussions, with a welcome debate on whether to move forward with military options now or press on for another round of diplomatic sanctions.

C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.

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