No good way to spin plague (16/9/2005)

1.No good way to spin plague
2.Courting Armageddon

On the day we heard that bubonic-plague-ridden GM mice had gone AWOL from a lab in New Jersey, but no need to worry... here's 3 pieces to make sure you sleep well tonight.

Judging by item 3, those mice are probably already in the American food chain!

EXCERPTS: "News that a U.S. company recently sent vials of a 1957 pandemic flu strain to laboratories across the world by accident is only the latest outrage from the billion-dollar boondoggle called the federal biological weapons program." (item 2)

"When nearly 400 pigs used in U.S. bioengineering research apparently entered the food supply, the FDA said "it could not verify the researchers' claim [that they weren't dangerous] because they failed to keep enough records..." (item 3)

"It is not a good idea to lose plague-ridden mice - even in New Jersey. Officials say there is a minimal public health risk; if the mice did escape, they should be dead by now... Not so fast." (item 1)
1.No good way to spin plague
New Jerseay Herald, September 16, 2005 [shortened]
A classic nursery rhyme begins: "Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run." At a research lab in Newark, the mice weren't blind, but plague-ridden. And three of them have gone missing.

The Public Health Research Institute, which operates a lab on the campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, was responsible for the mice. The institute was testing a possible new vaccine for plague.

Plague, a.k.a. Black Death, wiped out a large swath of Europe in the Middle Ages. The lab was using 24 mice, eight to a cage. Eight mice were given a proven vaccine against plague. Eight mice received the new vaccine, and the remaining eight, a placebo. As of Aug. 25, the eight given the proven vaccine were alive. The mice in the two other cages all died. But on Aug. 29, there were only seven mice in the remaining cage. When researchers went back to count the dead mice that had been tagged and bagged, they were missing two more, for a total of three AWOL mice.

One gruesome theory is that a few mice had pulled a "Lord of the Flies" and ate the three missing mice. No one is sure. There is a full-blown investigation led by the FBI. It is not a good idea to lose plague-ridden mice - even in New Jersey. Officials say there is a minimal public health risk; if the mice did escape, they should be dead by now. End of nursery rhyme, right? Not so fast.

Serious questions have arisen about the security inside the lab and its safety procedures. Why didn't someone count the mice earlier? How is it possible for a research lab testing a potentially new vaccine for plague to be so lax? Aren't we supposed to be afraid of bioterrorists, not careless researchers?

It's scary. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Americans have seen how poorly prepared the federal government is to rapidly deploy resources - personnel and supplies - into a devastated region. What would happen if a natural disaster struck New Jersey or New York? What would happen if there was a biological terrorist attack? There's an answer for that: Very little.

This week marked four years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Soon, it will be four years since anthrax found its way into the U.S. mail. Don't expect a cable TV special on that subject. Anthrax isn't news any more despite the fact that no one has been arrested, tried and convicted for sending it through the mail.

Yet a major postal sorting center in this state was shut down because it was contaminated by anthrax. And when anthrax-laden letters landed in the Capitol, the Senate hightailed its $3,000 suits out of D.C. fast. But no one remembers that.

While the FBI conducts its investigation, it would be comforting to hear acting Gov. Richard Codey demand an accounting of all potential biological disasters cooking in laboratories across the state. New Jerseyans are aware of the risks posed by chemical plants; research facilities conducting tests on deadly diseases have been barely noted.

It is imperative that researchers conduct the needed tests to develop new vaccines against deadly diseases. It is equally imperative that safeguards are in place to ensure the public is not put at the same risk level as genetically engineered mice are inside cages.

UMDNJ has been plagued by an assortment of scandals this year. The lost mice are not part of that problem. The lab was not run by UMDNJ, but it is a reminder that oversight is lacking on campus.

Monty Python mocked the Black Death; "Bring out your dead" was a silly, sick mantra in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Yet there is nothing silly about plague. Is "three blind mice" a nursery rhyme or a metaphor for our current state of preparedness?

Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of the Herald News. Reach him at [email protected]
2.Courting Armageddon
How the Bush Administration's Biological Weapons Buildup Affects You
by Heather Wokusch

News that a U.S. company recently sent vials of a 1957 pandemic flu strain to laboratories across the world by accident is only the latest outrage from the billion-dollar boondoggle called the federal biological weapons program.

As you might recall, the Bush administration started its "biodefense" spending spree following the September 2001 deadly anthrax attacks, and one of its first projects was to genetically engineer a super-resistant, even more deadly version of the anthrax virus.

Our leaders are nuts.

Unfortunately, Project Jefferson has good company.

A US Army scientist in Maryland is currently trying to bring back elements of the 1918 Spanish flu, a virus which killed 40 million people. And a virologist in St. Louis has been working on a more lethal form of mousepox (related to smallpox) - just to try stopping the virus once it's been created.

Lack of oversight and runaway spending are exacerbated by the Bush administration's disrespect for the internationally-recognized Biological Weapons Convention. In short, reduced pressure on weapons labs to issue declarations and allow inspections means less accountability - and more opportunities for secrecy and abuse.

Put bluntly, the increasing number of stateside bioweapons blunders should come as no surprise. In February 2003, for example, the University of California at Davis (UCD) took a full ten days to inform nearby communities that a rhesus monkey had escaped from its primate-breeding facility. Coincidentally, UCD had been vying for government funds to set up its own "hot zone" biodefense lab which could use primates for biological weapons testing. If that monkey had been infected with ebola, or some other virus, it's unclear when or if the public would have been informed.

At roughly the same time that the monkey ditched UCD, the Pentagon unearthed over 2,000 tons of hazardous biological waste in Maryland, much of it undocumented leftovers of an abandoned germ warfare program. Nearby, the FBI was draining a pond for clues into 2001's anthrax attacks.

Doesn't inspire much trust in the transparency of US biological weapons programs. And things appear only to be getting worse.

In 2004, a whopping $6 billion went up for grabs for federal biodefense programs, and laboratories across the country went ballistic trying to get their hands on some of that cash. Predictably, cases of fraud and abuse quickly surfaced.

In June 2004, for example, the Army was caught shirking inspections at a major biodefense lab under its domain. The  scandal went back to 1999, when the Army commissioned a biological and chemical weapons-agent lab at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oversight regulations obligated the Army to inspect the lab each year thereafter, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were supposed to have inspected the lab on a regular basis too.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly; in December 2003, the committee in charge of safety at the Oak Ridge lab announced that it "remains comfortable of the review and inspections of the Chem/Bio Facility conducted by the CDC and the Army."

Small problem. In 2004, the Department of Energy's Inspector General discovered that the Army actually hadn't inspected the Oak Ridge biodefense lab for the previous three years, and that the CDC hadn't been there for four years. Yet the lab's safety committee said it was "comfortable" with the imaginary inspections.

Also in 2004, a military biodefense contractor called Southern Research landed in hot water by accidentally sending live anthrax across the country from Frederick, Maryland to the Children's Hospital of Oakland (California). To make matters worse, it turns out that Southern Research's lab in Frederick, Maryland didn't even maintain the institutional biosafety committee required by federal research rules The punishment for these acts of gross incompetence and irresponsibility? The Bush administration gave Southern Research the task of safeguarding a new $30 million biological weapons facility being built near Chicago.

In September of the same year, three lab workers at the Boston University Medical Center were accidentally exposed to a potentially lethal biowarfare agent called tularaemia bacterium. The lab didn't report the tularemia infections until two months later though - after it had won a contract to build a new, $178 million biodefense laboratory.

Concerns about lack of transparency and monetary waste aside, the administration's bioweapons buildup raises obvious ethical problems. Why should the U.S. create newer, even deadlier viruses? Who are these catastrophic weapons going to be tested on? What populations will they ultimately be used against?

These questions take on urgent meaning given the Bush administration's military adventurism coupled with the US media's poor coverage regarding war victims. For example, eyewitnesses to the late-2004 attack on Fallujah claimed that US forces used poisonous gases, and "weird" bombs that exploded into fires that burned the skin despite water being thrown on the burns - a telltale sign of napalm or phosphorus bombs.

UK reaction to the revelation was swift and strong, with demands that Prime Minister Blair remove British troops from Iraq until the US ceased from using such savage weaponry. Labor MP Alice Mahon demanded that Blair make "an emergency statement to the Commons to explain why this is happening. It begs the question: 'Did we know about this hideous weapon's use in Iraq?'"

No similar outrage in Congress. In fact, no comment at all. The US mainstream media didn't cover the "weird bomb" allegations.

But it doesn't take a genius to put two-and-two together: if we permit our government to ignore international weapons-control conventions and then say nothing while fresh billions are invested in barbaric new weaponry, we lose the right to act surprised when our own military uses that weaponry on innocent civilians abroad.

Or even on us.

You may be surprised to learn that in 2003, the Pentagon quietly admitted to having used biological/chemical agents on 5,842 service members in secret tests conducted over a ten-year period (1962-73).

In operations called Project 112 and Project SHAD, the Defense Department tested its own weapons on service members aboard Navy ships, and in all sorts of other nasty ways - such as spraying a Hawaiian rainforest and parts of Oahu. All in all, tests were conducted in six states (Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Utah) as well as in Canada and Britain.

Many military personnel were not informed when the toxic agents were being tested on them. Only decades later, as crucial documents slowly become declassified, have the veterans' health complaints been acknowledged.

You might think such barbarism could never happen again: too many legal protections for citizens in place. Think again.

There's a tricky clause in Chapter 32/Title 50 of the United States Code (the aggregation of US general and permanent laws) which states that the Secretary of Defense can conduct a chemical or biological agent test or experiment on humans in certain cases "if informed consent has been obtained."

So far so good. But check out a different part of Chapter 32, Section 1515, entitled "Suspension; Presidential authorization":

"After November 19, 1969, the operation of this chapter, or any portion thereof, may be suspended by the President during the period of any war declared by Congress and during the period of any national emergency declared by Congress or by the President."

You got it. If the President or Congress decides we're at war then the Secretary of Defense doesn't need anybody's consent to test chemical or biological agents on human beings. Gives one pause during these days of a perpetual "War on Terror."

In January 2005, US Senate majority leader Bill Frist called for a new Manhattan Project (referring to the WWII-era nuclear weapons bonanza) for biological weapons.  Frist told an audience at the World Economic Forum, "The greatest existential threat we have in the world today is biological," and he went on to predict a biowarfare attack "at some time in the next 10 years."

How ironic that while Frist cited the 2001 US anthrax attacks as proof more biological weapons research was necessary, he failed to mention that those incidents involved anthrax produced right in the good 'ole USA - or that the primary suspect in the attacks was a US Army scientist. Frist also didn't clarify how developing even more biological warfare agents would make the world safer.

The original Manhattan Project ultimately led to US forces dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the resulting slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. It's terrifying to consider the potential repercussions, both domestic and abroad, of the Bush administration's coveted new biological-weapons Manhattan Project.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer who can be reached via her web site: www.heatherwokusch.com . This article was partially excerpted from her upcoming book entitled "The Progressives' Primer: 100 Easy Ways to Make a Difference Now." Heather's currently on hiatus, putting together a multimedia project on women and war.

The genetic engineer's garbage can: the U.S. food supply. When nearly 400 pigs used in U.S. bioengineering research apparently entered the food supply, the FDA said "it could not verify the researchers' claim [that the pigs weren't dangerous] because they failed to keep enough records..." (US biotech researchers careless with 386 pigs - FDA, full story below)

Here are some more missing GM pigs from the same report:

"One year ago, several genetically altered pigs ended up in Canadian poultry feed. Researchers at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario discovered 11 dead piglets were mistakenly sent to a rendering plant and ground into poultry feed."

The year before that we had:

"Tainted pork from genetically altered pigs stolen from the University of Florida showed up in sausage served at a funeral in High Springs, university police said.

The stolen pigs were genetically engineered to develop a disorder similar to diabetic blindness in humans. University officials do not know what effect, if any, the treated meat could have on people who eat it.

The pig incident is one in a series of missteps at the university's Animal Resources department which oversees the treatment of biomedical research animals."
(Tainted pigs show up in sausage at funeral
The Associated Press, June 3, 2001)

Pigs themselves were also put at risk by a lab break out a year later:

"WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities are investigating the disappearance of genetically altered bacteria fatal to pigs that appear to have been stolen from a research laboratory at Michigan State University.

Investigators said that while the bacteria apparently are harmless to humans, they could devastate the pork industry if replicated and released, and they are treating the case as a potential terrorist threat."
(Authorities Probe Case Of Missing Bacteria
And then of course that same year there was:  

Alarm as GM pig vaccine taints US crops
Strict new guidelines planned after contamination
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
The Guardian, December 24, 2002  
The full story: US biotech researchers careless with 386 pigs - FDA
Source - Reuters Commodities News (Eng)
Thursday, February 06, 2003  06:37

WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Nearly 400 pigs used in U.S. bioengineering research may have entered the food supply because they were sold to a livestock dealer instead of being destroyed, the Food and Drug Administration said on Wednesday.

But the FDA said the pigs did not pose a public health risk.

Between April 2001 and January 2003, researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign released 386 pigs from biotech studies to a livestock dealer, the agency said.

Under the study requirements set by the FDA, the pigs should have been incinerated or sent to a rendering plant for disposal.

"The researchers claim that these pigs, which were the offspring of transgenic animals, did not inherit the inserted genetic material from their parents -- that is, they were not themselves transgenic," the FDA said in a statement.

The agency said it could not verify the researchers' claim because they failed to keep enough records to assess whether the baby pigs inherited the added genetic material

The pigs were part of a study in which genes were engineered so that proteins would be produced primarily in the milk-producing glands of female pigs. The agency did not elaborate on the purpose of the experiment.

"None of the pigs sent to slaughter are believed to have been old enough to lactate," the FDA said. That means any meat or other products derived from the animal should not be harmful to humans it added.

The FDA did not identify the livestock dealer which took ownership of the research pigs.

The agency said it was continuing to investigate the incident in collaboration with the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The researchers' failure to destroy the pigs is a "serious violation" of FDA rules, the agency added.

Various U.S. researchers have been experimenting with genetic engineering of pigs to produce such things as proteins to treat human hemophilia and blood-clotting diseases. Other studies have focused on how to insert a gene that will produce leaner pork for consumption or more environmentally-friendly pig manure.

One year ago, several genetically altered pigs ended up in Canadian poultry feed. Researchers at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario discovered 11 dead piglets were mistakenly sent to a rendering plant and ground into poultry feed.

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