In a Lonely Stand, a Scientist Takes on National Security Dogma
June 29, 2004
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
In 2004, a scientist who speaks out against government
efforts to thwart terrorism does not win any popularity
contests in Washington.
So Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist with an
intimate understanding of the science underlying the use of
deadly germs as weapons, has received no warm invitations
to participate in federal panels on domestic security.
Dr. Ebright disagrees with much of the security community
about how best to protect the nation from attacks with
The government and many security experts say one crucial
step is to build more high-security laboratories, where
scientists can explore the threats posed not only by deadly
natural germs, but also by designer pathogens - genetically
modified superbugs that could outdo natural viruses and
bacteria in their killing power. To this end, the Bush
administration has earmarked hundreds of millions of
dollars to erect such laboratories in Boston; Galveston,
Tex.; and Frederick, Md., among other places, increasing
eightfold the overall space devoted to the high-technology
Dr. Ebright, on the other hand, views the plans as a recipe
for catastrophe. The laboratories, called biosafety level
4, or BSL-4, are costly, unnecessary and dangerous, he
"I'm concerned about them from the standpoint of science,
safety, security, public health and economics," he added in
an interview. "They lose on all counts."
Dr. Ebright has no illusions about the likelihood of
biological warfare. "I think there's a very real threat of
bioweapons use," he said.
He closely followed the investigation of the anthrax
attacks in 2001 that killed five people and sickened more
than a dozen others. Indeed, that investigation veered
close to home, when federal agents examined photocopying
machines at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., where
Dr. Ebright is on the faculty of the Waksman Institute of
Microbiology, for possible links to the anthrax mailer.
But the scientist has voiced his opposition to the
government's approach with increasing vigor since the
laboratory plans jelled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,
and he has done so with significant authority. Although he
is not a military expert, his work on the fundamental
biology of microbes gives heft to his views.
The labs, Dr. Ebright says, are a perilous overreaction to
an inflated threat and will do more harm than good.
Although the threat of biological warfare is real, the
weapons used by terrorists are unlikely to be the
next-generation agents that the high-security labs are
intended to study, he says. Yet by increasing the
availability of such pathogens, Dr. Ebright argues, the
labs will "bring that threat to fruition."
"It's arming our opponents," he said.
In addition, he
says, the laboratories could leak. They could put deadly
pathogens into irresponsible hands and they will divert
money from other worthy endeavors like public health and
the frontiers of biology. Moreover, their many hundreds of
new employees would become a pool of deadly expertise that
could turn malevolent, unleashing lethal germs on an
Dr. Ebright cited a study published in February 2001 that
found that of 21 known germ attacks over the decades, most
were conducted not by terrorists, but by professional
researchers who had gained access to human pathogens.
"The substantial majority were research or medical
personnel," he said, "which is what you'd expect."
He added that the danger of terrorism might well increase
during the expansion of BSL-4 laboratories, because they
will have to comb an underdeveloped field to hire many
hundreds of employees, potentially letting troublemakers
Top private and federal experts have lobbied hard for new
Level 4 labs as superstar research hubs, arguing that it is
only in such highly protected settings that they can study
the most dangerous threats and come up with ways to
counteract them. The labs boast the highest degree of
security, and they are so tightly cut off from the
environment that they have been compared to submarines.
Dr. Richard O. Spertzel, a microbiologist who led the
United Nations inspections for germ weapons in Iraq,
defended the new laboratories as critical to national
security, noting that some would be built on military bases
behind barbed wire, adding another layer of protection.
"They're absolutely required," Dr. Spertzel said. "Speed is
of the essence. We're way behind in protecting ourselves."
Dr. Ebright said the Level 4 labs appeared to be safe.
Their crux is multiple layers of protection to keep lethal
germs inside - technicians in space suits, filters in air
ducts, backup generators, negative pressure so any leaks
around sealed doors or windows let clean air in rather than
poisonous air out and so on.
But Dr. Ebright noted that the deadly SARS virus recently
escaped from BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs in Taiwan, Singapore and
Beijing, in each case setting off minor epidemics that
killed or sickened people.
The smart alternative, he says, is for national authorities
to focus germ-defense research on more realistic threats
like simple anthrax, which needs just a Level 2 or Level 3
laboratory for preparation, while still being powerful
enough to knock out whole cities.
In the end, Dr. Ebright says, it is simple greed, not
science or national security, that lies behind some of the
Level 4 offensive.
"It's the easiest way to bring $100 million to your
university," he said. "Perhaps the only way."