Federal spending in response to the bioterrorism threat has exceeded the annual cost of the Manhattan Project to build the first atom bomb. As as illustrated by a recent mishap in which a Frederick, Md., lab inadvertently shipped lethal anthrax across the country, reports the Baltimore Sun, the campaign might be creating new hazards even as it seeks to make the country safer. The flood of new money – $14.5 billion since 2001 – has drawn many new researchers into the field, creating more possibilities for the release of anthrax and other “select agents,” the legal term for pathogens with bioterrorist potential. Known incidents have been few; scientists say the proliferation of places and people involved in germ experiments – 11,119 workers in 317 U.S. labs approved to date – boosts the chance of accidental leaks or deliberate diversion of germs. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires that the location of labs handling lethal pathogens be kept secret, giving citizens no way to find out what research is being conducted nearby.
Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University, is “amazed” by the influx of people into his field. Before 2001, with only a dozen research groups studying anthrax, “we all knew each other by first name,” he says. Today, when he reviews anthrax research proposals, “I see a lot of names I’ve never heard of. … On a probabilistic basis, there’s more of a risk of accidents or attacks,” he says. “I think we’ve spent an awful lot of money, and I’m not sure we’re much better off.” Stefan Wagener, president of the American Biological Safety Association, says the law prompted some labs to destroy little-used stocks of germs that might have posed a hazard. “I would say the impact has been positive,” says Wagener. But has the law made the United States safer from an insider’s bioterrorist attack? “That’s harder to answer.”