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U.S. Biochemical Research
F or most nonscientists, the word biochemical causes our brains to shut down and skip over whatever scientific “gobbledygook” follows. Combined, however, with “good enough for government work,” a catch-phrase for sloppy bureaucracy that can be shrugged off in most areas, it becomes perilous because today’s biochemical research is perilous indeed.
A side from the real concern of clinical trials on sentient beings without their full and informed consent—be they animals, prisoners, soldiers, residents of domestic and foreign ghettos, or undergraduates—humans live longer and better today due to advances from medical research, which has given us such benefits as antibiotics, AIDS medications, and vaccines for polio, measles, and smallpox.
Because such research entails working with dangerous diseases, we have supervisory bodies to oversee and control safety. In the United States this is handled by the National Institute of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of NIH’s four stated goals is to exemplify and promote the highest level of scientific integrity, public accountability, and social responsibility in the conduct of science. The NIH issues guidelines for labs operating with federal funds, including making public their plans and operations and publishing minutes of laboratory safety committee meetings, as required by U.S. law. The NIH has the power to shut them down if they do not comply. All good.
T hree examples (of many) of what can happen without careful supervision: the anthrax attacks in October 2001, believed to have come accidentally or on purpose from a Ft. Detrick laboratory; the Meridian Biosciences Inc. scare in 2005 that sent 3,700 samples of a potentially dangerous flu to labs around the world; and a near miss by the University of Texas in April 2006 that could have released a mix of common human influenza genes with those of bird.
Is the supervision adequate? The Sunshine Project, an NGO watchdog group in Germany and the United States, is now conducting a second survey of nearly 400 U.S. institutional biosafety committees (IBC). These committees, maintained at labs conducting federally-funded biotechnology research, have been established to protect people and the environment from risks of biotechnology experiments. In the course of conducting the IBC survey, the Sunshine Project has encountered a number of biosafety problems in research involving potential biological weapons agents. These include: physical issues at high containment laboratories, risky experiments approved with dubious safety precautions and/or inadequate IBC review, and dysfunctional and otherwise non-compliant committees.
In the first study, it found 113 university, government, hospital, and corporate laboratories engaged in research that refused to disclose what they were doing and what safety measures they were taking as required by federal rules.
What might they be working on? One possibility stems from the real fear of a mutation of bird flu that could be humanly contagious, which has all and sundry busily mixing and matching common influenza strains or genetically engineered strains with the deadly H5N1 bird flu. A mistake or accident could lead to an unpredictable flu strain that would cause the very human epidemic they are supposedly trying to avoid.
Another is the questionable resurrection of the deadly 1918 influenza strain, being studied in Atlanta and at a Canadian BSL-4 in Winnipeg, but probably also in Madison, Wisconsin (Kawaoka), Seattle, Washington (Katze), Athens, Georgia (USDA flu lab), New York City (Mt. Sinai Hospital), and perhaps Washington, DC/Bethesda, Maryland (Taubenberger), and other places.
Still another is the possible synthesis of the smallpox virus. Last year, two years after Congress banned this synthesis, a federally appointed panel recommended that the law be dropped.
This is potentially dangerous stuff, in dire need of supervision. So why are the (at least) 113 labs not accountable? It’s not that some of these labs are hiding the minutes of their bio-safety meetings, but that the committees simply have never met or, when they have met, their minutes say nothing of consequence. Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project questioned the NIH director in November asking for accountability. To date, he has had no response. This is bad.
A s with much of what we’ve been living through with Bush, we have the Reagan legacy to blame as well. Secretly disregarding the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972, the Reagan administration advanced research into germ warfare and sold disease-causing microbes, including anthrax, to Saddam Hussein, which he later used in his war against Iran.
In 1986, 14 years after signing the convention, the government gave various U.S. universities $42 million to develop infectious diseases and toxins, hoping for strains of anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, tularemia, shigella, botulin, and Q fever.
The U.S. has what is believed to be the world’s second largest stockpile of chemical weapons, nerve and choking agents among them, not counting run-of-the-mill crowd control chemicals such as tear gas and pepper spray. The U.S. was committed to destroying these by 2004 and one would like to believe that it did, but it has not permitted any international supervisory group to verify that they were indeed destroyed. (Russia has the most and also promised to destroy them.)
CNN assures us that the U.S. maintains it does not have a stockpile of biological weapons, although it admits pursuing “defensive” biological research. Aside from the question of when and why biological weaponry would be used for defense, Francis Boyle, the professor who drafted the 1989 congressional Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act, states the Pentagon “is now gearing up to fight and ‘win’ biological warfare” with two national strategy directives that Bush adopted in 2002 without “public knowledge and review.”
T he Bush administration, always going one worse than Reagan, took the teeth out of the international inspection system for biological laboratories in 2001 and, although the 1925 Geneva Convention banning biological agents still exists, Guantanamo Bay has shown us what heed the White House pays to the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, the 1972 BTWC is still valid and without exemption and the Pentagon knows it, so the lexicon writers who gave us “collateral damage” are simply declaring research “non-lethal,” thereby creating an imaginary grey area between what is permitted and what is not weapons research.
In its coverage of a controversial Boston University laboratory, the Boston Globe revealed that there were 335 labs in the United States registered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to handle deadly biological agents such as anthrax, ebola, and smallpox, as well as 75 other labs registered with the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. More than 7,200 scientists and lab workers are cleared to work in the United States with live anthrax alone; not to mention a likely U.S. Army plan for more foreign-based labs (they already exist in Egypt, Peru, Italy, Indonesia, and Germany). A current Corps of Engineers solicitation for design services suggests this, offering $3 million contracts over the 3-year life of the contract.
Then there is the fascinating field of recombinant DNA. What scientists are doing with it, however, frightened the National Research Council’s Executive Committee enough in 2004 to strongly recommend that NIH establish a review system for these “experiments of concern.” The concerns involved experiments that would demonstrate how to:
render a vaccine ineffective (such as vaccine-resistant
- confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents
- enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a non-pathogen virulent
- increase transmissibility
- alter host range of a pathogen
- evade diagnostic/detection modalities (microencapulation and/or alteration of gene sequence to avoid established molecular methods)
- weaponization of a biological agent or toxin, including environmental stabilization (such as synthesis of the smallpox virus)
In probable response to this, the government is supposedly developing an “oversight” commission through the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity. But on October 25 the NSABB working group “moved to creatively thwart its charge. Although it was formed to recommend biosecurity rules to govern the new field of synthetic biology, the working group will instead assault regulations of a wide range of biodefense and biotech risks…. The working group’s outlook is more political than technical. Its science is a veneer that disguises the maturing political muscle of a constituency of bioscientists that has become accustomed, perhaps addicted, to lavish federal biodefense funding” according to the Sunshine Project.
In sum, in defiance of international accords and ignoring congressional and sane scientific attempts at regulation, our government is experimenting with biological and chemical weapons of unbelievable danger to humankind probably in a lab near you, including creating and testing “non-lethal” hardware that can deliver the full spectrum of such weapons. This is monstrous.
Carolina Cositore has been a journalist and translator/rewriter in Havana, Cuba for over eight years.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.