The Accidental Terrorists
Research on deadly germs is booming, and so are safety slipups. How worried should you be?
Click here for a look at the rogue germs now in captivity and the reasons we hope they stay that way.
Plague-infected monkeys, sharp-toothed ferrets with bird flu that bite, broken vials of an exotic Russian virus that causes brain swelling: If you thought the anthrax letters that killed two postal workers in 2001 were scary, consider this latest string of botched biodefense experiments. In October, an Associated Press investigation turned up unpublished documentation of the mishaps, along with 100 or so other accidents involving deadly germs in the nation’s biodefense laboratories since 2003. In the same month, a congressional report on biodefense concluded that safety oversights in such laboratories are dangerously slack. Details of the accidents are scarce, because much of the work with “select agents”-about 70 germs ranging from anthrax and Ebola to “lumpy skin disease”-is classified. But one thing is certain: Biodefense research is exploding. Federal funds topped $5.1 billion last year, up from $576 million in 2001, and the number of labs approved to handle the deadliest germs has jumped from five to 15 since 2001.
Ed Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group that monitors bioweapons research, says that although there’s a low risk of these bugs escaping the lab, the consequences of such a mishap could be catastrophic. Click here for a look at rogue germs in captivity and why we hope they stay that way.