BIOWARFARE RESEARCH CONDUCTED AT U.S. UNIVERSITIES
Overshadowed by Star Wars, the push toward developing ghastly instruments of biological warfare has been one of the Reagan administration’s best-kept secrets. The research budget for infectious diseases and toxins has increased tenfold since fiscal 1981, and most of the 1986 budget of $42 million went to 24 U.S. universities where the world’s most deadly organisms are being cultivated in campus labs.
The large sums of military money available for biotechnology research is a powerful attraction for scientists whose civilian funding resources have dried up. Scientists who formerly researched diseases like cancer now use their talents to develop strains of such rare pathogens as anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, tularemia, shigella, botulin, and Q fever.
Many members of the academic community find the trend alarming. However, when MIT’s biology department voted to refuse Pentagon funds for biotech research, the administration forced it to reverse its decision by threatening to cut off other funds. In 1987, when the University of Wisconsin hired retired Army Col. Philip Sobocinski to help professors attract Pentagon-funded biowarfare research, a UW science writer was fired after disclosing the details in the student newspaper.
Since the U.S. signed the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which bans “development, production, stockpiling, and use of microbes or their poisonous byproducts except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research,” the university- based projects are called defensive efforts aimed at developing vaccines and protective gear. Scientists who oppose the program insist that a germ-warfare defense is clearly impractical; the entire population would have to be vaccinated for every known harmful biological agent. The only feasible application of a “defensive” development is in conjunction with offensive use: Troops could be effectively vaccinated for a singe agent prior to launching an attack with it.
Another issue receiving even less attention is the safety or the security of the labs involved. Release of pathogens, either by accident or design, would prove tragic. Twenty-three U.S. schools, including the Universities of California, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Utah, are currently engaged in biowarfare research.
ISTHMUS, October 8, 1987, “Biowarfare and the UW,” by Richard Jannaccio;
THE PROGRESSIVE, Nov. 16, 1987, “Poisons from the Pentagon,” by Seth Shulman;
WALL STREET JOURNAL, Sept. 17, 1986, “Military Science,” by Bill Richards and Tim Carrington.
From: UTNE READER, September/October 1988, p. 87.