Date: December 15, 1986
BOSTON-A sharp increase in U.S. military spending for research on biological warfare agents has raised concern about its effect on related fields and sparked debate on the nature of the work.
The Defense Department expects to spend $73.2 million in 1987 on biological weapons research, a figure that has risen from $14.9 million at the start of the Reagan administration. Douglas Feith, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy, told a House sub-committee last summer that "the prevailing judgment of years ago that BW is not a militarily significant weapon is now quite un sustainable."
Most of this research focuses on the development of vaccines against some of the most deadly and exotic diseases known-diseases that could be unleashed as part of a biological warfare (BW) campaign. And while much of this research takes place at in-house Army, Navy and Air Force re search facilities, contracts with scientists at universities and private firms in 21 states make up a significant portion of the research effort.
Scientists at the University of Kansas, for example, are cloning genes of the deadly Dengue-2 virus in the hopes of developing a vaccine. A team at Molecular Genetics, a private biotechnology firm in Minnesota, has a defense contract to engineer a variant of Rift Valley fever, a rare and lethal African disease. Other researchers at universities and government facilities are working to clone snake venom genes, genes of leishmania, shigella, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a wide range of other dangerous viruses, bacteria and parasites.
Proponents of such research efforts say the scientific questions involved are compelling, the research is entirely defensive in nature, and the work could lead to vaccines not only for troops but also for those living in or visiting such regions as North Africa or central America, where some of these diseases pose a health threat. Critics of the military's interest in biological warfare say the line between defensive and offensive BW research is hazy at best and that increased spending by the military threatens to escalate a BW arms race.
The United States and the Soviet Union last fall agreed to hold further discussions to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the production or use of biological weapons. Among the proposals discussed was that the two nations promise to notify other nations of any outbreaks of unusual, toxin-related diseases, to share information about the location and principal activities of all high-containment laboratories where genetic engineering research is underway, and to encourage the exchange of scientists involved in BW-related biological research.
Beyond the legal issues involved, many scientists are concerned that the influx of military funding will skew research priorities in the field as other sources of funding remain constant or shrink.
Donald Robertson, a biochemist at Brigham Young University,initially took some Army funding to do work on retroviruses, a longtime interest of his. But for the past few years Robertson has agreed to work on an anthrax vaccine for the Army, a significant shift in his re search effort. "I think that good, sound science is being done in this area," he said, "but I wouldn't be working on this particular project if it weren't funded by the military."
Others, like Thomas Mason, a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts, say their work has few military applications. Mason has a $1 million contract from the Army to do research into flaviviruses, those responsible for Japanese encephalitis, and Dengue- 1 diseases. He hopes to create a vaccine for diseases that affect millions around the world.
"I cannot fathom even the most warped military mind using our re search for use as biological weapons," he commented. "If I did, I would not do the research."
The increased funding has shifted research priorities at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. The director of the Institute, Col. Franklin H. Top, suggested in a memo last year that the institute could avoid pending layoffs among civilian staff scientists in its biochemistry infectious disease division by switching them to BW research.
"Nobody wants to pour money into biological weapons defense," Top said in a recent interview. "We'd like more money in civilian infectious disease research. But due to the large influx of money in the area of BW defense, we elected to have a small number of staff change their funding sources." Eleven scientists out of the 750 employees at Walter Reed have switched over to work on biological weapons.
One organization that is alarmed at the growing military interest in biological sciences is the Committee for Responsible Genetics (CRG), a Boston-based group whose members include scientists. Its petition calling for a halt to biological research for military purposes has attracted some 4,000 signatures.
The petition drive began more than a year ago in conjunction with the Army's plan to build a $1.4 million aerosol research facility at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground to conduct research on "substantial volumes of toxic biological agents." The committee is pushing for congressional hearings on the issue as well as a boycott of biological weapons research funded by the military. In a separate action, a suit by the Foundation on Economic Trends has delayed construction while the government compiles an environmental impact statement on the proposed expansion at Dugway.
Shulman is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, Mass.