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Biosecurity Effort Expands To Africa

U.S. seeks to secure deadly pathogens to prevent their use in bioterror attacks

by Glenn Hess
April 11, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 15

Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Richard Lugar’s Office (both)
At the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi, Lugar looks at unidentified bacteria.
Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Richard Lugar’s Office (both)
At the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi, Lugar looks at unidentified bacteria.

The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program is a U.S. initiative that began two decades ago to help secure and destroy nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Now, the program is being expanded to confront the threat of bioterrorism in other regions of the world.

A Ugandan facility that Lugar visited lacks the proper tools to handle samples carrying deadly diseases such as anthrax and Ebola virus.
A Ugandan facility that Lugar visited lacks the proper tools to handle samples carrying deadly diseases such as anthrax and Ebola virus.
Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Richard Lugar’s Office
A handwritten logbook at a lab in Uganda notes a “suspected case of ANTHRAX outbreak.”
Credit: Courtesy of Sen. Richard Lugar’s Office
A handwritten logbook at a lab in Uganda notes a “suspected case of ANTHRAX outbreak.”

Specifically, some of the world’s deadliest diseases—including the Ebola, Marburg, and Rift Valley Fever viruses—occur naturally in Africa, a volatile region of the world where civil upheaval and terrorism are widespread.

CTR program investigators found that during the Cold War, Soviet scientists used pathogens from Africa to make biological weapons. The U.S., with the assistance of the Russian government and military, shut down these programs. Those pathogens, though, are endemic to East Africa, where samples of the same diseases are studied today in research facilities that often lack basic security systems.

“Those weapons are being destroyed. Now we have to secure their sources,” says Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican member and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are active in Africa, and it is imperative that deadly pathogens stored in labs there are secure. This is a threat we cannot ignore.”

Lugar, along with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), cosponsored legislation that led to the creation in 1991 of the CTR program, a U.S.-funded, Department of Defense-led effort to safeguard and eliminate enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union after its collapse.

Under the initiative, all nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were shipped to Russia for dismantlement. Almost 8,000 nuclear warheads, 3,000 missiles and launchers, and millions of tons of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued the congressionally mandated report “Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction” that recommended reformulating the CTR program to focus on combating international terrorism and other current threats.

“The program needs a broad upgrade to meet the magnitude of new security challenges, particularly at the nexus of WMD and terrorism,” said David R. Franz, vice president and chief biological scientist at Midwest Research Institute in Frederick, Md., and cochairman of the NAS committee that wrote the report.

The committee observed that many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia “may be willing to partner in broadening efforts begun by DOD to improve disease surveillance and give early warning to the U.S. about potential biological attacks or disease outbreaks.”

Last November, with concerns mounting over terrorist activity on the African continent, Lugar led a delegation of arms-control experts from the Pentagon on a trip to Kenya and Uganda. There, they inspected security at health research facilities that store samples of lethal biological agents. In the U.S., protection at such facilities rivals that found at a maximum security prison. But in Africa, security is more likely to be some barbed wire.

“Smaller regional facilities that collect samples directly from patients often have little or no security, unsecured and unlocked pathogen collections, and open perimeters,” a DOD spokesman tells C&EN. National facilities are more secure, he says, but their security is usually supported by donor money from international organizations.

In Uganda, Lugar and the Pentagon delegation visited a 1920s-era animal research facility in Entebbe that has broken windows and is surrounded by a ripped chain-link fence. At two virus research labs outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala, the team found obvious gaps in security, such as ordinary padlocks and a lack of entry monitoring and inventory sheets to screen who has access to biological agents. At a biomedical research institute in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, a short concrete wall topped with barbed wire is the only security barrier.

“The work that has been performed at these labs is invaluable, and the world is better off for it. Without this research we would be even further behind the curve on potential outbreaks and new strains of deadly diseases like Ebola and anthrax,” Lugar says.

But these pathogens can be made into weapons “more simply than any dealing with chemical or nuclear devices,” he notes. “Just one of the deadly viruses I witnessed could, if in the wrong hands, cause death and economic chaos.” Attacks last year in Uganda by Islamic extremists combined with terrorist activity in North Africa and the sub-Saharan Sahel region “have brought this threat into sharper focus,” Lugar adds.

For example, Lugar points to July 2010 when two restaurants in Kampala were attacked by suicide bombers during a viewing of a World Cup soccer match. Dozens of Ugandan citizens were killed, and hundreds more were injured. Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network operating within neighboring Somalia, claimed responsibility for the bombings. Even higher numbers of casualties would have resulted if biological weapons had been used in the attacks.

To address potential biosecurity threats, officials say the U.S. plans to forge security and research agreements with the governments of Kenya and Uganda that establish links between detection and reporting of emerging infectious diseases, global public health, and biodefense.

“Building cooperative programs with African countries is in our mutual security interests and will also have the humanitarian effect of identifying and controlling new diseases that could quickly spread around the world,” Lugar remarks.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently approved the expansion of the CTR program to the African continent “with cooperative biological engagement activities in mind,” according to the DOD spokesman. The department already has authority to operate outside the former Soviet Union to reduce proliferation threats; that was covered in 2003 under the Nunn-Lugar Expansion Act. In addition to Africa, the post-Soviet threat reduction effort is also addressing “emerging risks” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, China, and India, the DOD official says.

Africa, he notes, faces considerable challenges. “The confluence of poverty, governmental instability, terrorism, and a heavy burden of disease makes a compelling case for bioengagement in the region and demonstrates the potential gain that can be made with investments in health security,” the spokesman remarks.

A major goal of the biological engagement initiative, he says, is “to work collaboratively with our partners to bring key facilities that house dangerous pathogens up to U.S. safety and security standards.”

Under President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012, “additional funds will be allocated for expansion of CTR activities in Africa,” the DOD official adds. The Administration is asking Congress to provide $508 million for the WMD threat reduction effort, including $260 million for activities aimed at preventing terrorists from obtaining dangerous pathogens.

The fact that the U.S. has not suffered a major biological, chemical, or nuclear attack is significant, but the threat remains, says Kenneth A. Myers, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Pentagon unit charged with safeguarding the U.S. and its allies from WMD.

“Those who wish to harm us understand that the use of such weapons could result in immense loss of life and enduring economic, political, and social damage on a global scale,” Myers said when testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last month. “They are determined to acquire WMD and, if successful, will use them. I go to work every day with 2,000 people whose job is to prevent that from happening.”


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