Mice, Men & Biowar
May 11, 2001
This is a story of mice and men, and how the latter turned the former into something that should be keeping us all up at night.
The tale begins three years ago with a group of Australian gene engineers trying to devise a way to protect food supplies by making mice and rats infertile. So they did this very fancy thing: they inserted a mouse gene into a mousepox virus. The idea was that the gene would stimulate an overproduction of interleukin-4, an essential ingredient in mouse immune systems. That, in turn, would prevent the implantation of an egg in the uteru of a female mouse. Presto, infertile mice.
But something terrible happened between the drawing board to the mouse, and instead of making the mice infertile, the mousepox turned lethal, killing even those mice vaccinated against the disease. So why stay up nights worrying about dead mice? Because interkeukin-4 is an essential ingredient in our own immune systems, and what can be done to mice, can be done to men. As one Department of Defense scientist told the New York Times, “It demonstrates a frightening message. Maybe it is easier to do these things than we think.”
The Australian killer would never have happened if the world had paid attention to a group of scientists, and Nobel laureates, who met in Asilomar, Ca. back in 1975 to try to establish guidelines for the newly minted field of genetic engineering. That conference pledged, in the words of Caltech microbial geneticist Robert Sinsheimer, “ to take every possible precaution to keep these creations out of our biosphere.”
But two years later, an unholy alliance of biotech industries and the U.S.
military, led by former Nobel winner James Watson, a discoverer of DNA, called for wide-open research and a no-holds barred application of genetic engineering. Calling the Asilomar guidelines “an exercise in the theater of the absurd,” Watson called efforts to control DNA research “a massive miscalculation in which we cried wolf without ever having seen or even heard one.”
Well, the wolf is at the door, a door, according to Feb. 8, 2001 report by the U.S. Energy Department, which is hardly locked and bolted. The Department found that eight biological weapons labs lacked required oversight and control, and that experiments involving anthrax, plague, and botulism raised “the potential for greater risk to workers and possibly others.” Three of those labs, Sandia, and Lawrence in Livermore and Berkeley, are in Northern California
Most people assume that biological warfare was eliminated by the 1972 Biological Weapons Treaty and the only people out there with bad bugs are the so-called “rogue states” like Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But bioweapons research is permitted under the Treaty as long as it is “defensive,” not “offensive.” The difference, however, is hardly obvious. “The Pentagon says everything is defensive when a lot of things are offensive,” said now-Senator Barbara Boxer when she was in the House. “The research is the same. You have the same organisms present to do the test.”
A lot of the things being looked at in those labs are not things you would want to encounter, and if they ever got out into the biosphere, we are talking major trouble. The National Institute of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee approved a proposal that inserted a diphtheria toxin gene into the E. coli bacteria commonly found in the human intestine. According to Sinsheimer, the test “probably contravened the 1972 Treaty and was certainly a dangerous thing to do.” Just how dangerous was underlined by a Rand Corporation report discussing the “weaponization”” of E. coli by inserting the toxin for botulism in it, one of the deadliest poisons known. The report suggested that “liberally added to water supplies and various food,” E. coli could “eliminate large numbers of people.”
Over the past few months, organizations ranging from the CIA to the National Homeland Defense Agency have warned about “bio-terrorism.” Americans have indeed been the targets of biological weapons, but from our own government. In 1950, the U.S. Navy pumped Serratia marcescens into the fog rolling in through San Francisco Bay to test the vulnerability of the Bay Area to biowarfare. While the bacteria are generally benign, they aren’t always. The “experement” likely killed Edward Nevins, a San Francisco pipefitter, whose autopsy revealed heart valves clogged with the pathogen. Bacteria were also sprayed on Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News in Virginia.
The Army admits to 339 open-air tests of biological weapons in the U.S., including the release of Hemophilus pertussis (Whooping cough) in Sebring and Palmetto, Florida. Whooping cough cases increased 12 fold, and deaths increased three-fold in Florida that year. Anthrax and Q Fever were released at high altitudes over Utah and Nevada to study dispersal patterns, and rodents infected with plague, tularemia, and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis were released in the Dugway Proving Grounds near Salt Lake City.
The Army even tested a so-called “ethnic weapon” using coccidiomycosis or “Valley Fever, “ a fungus to which African-Americans and Asians are particularly susceptible. A variety of the fungus was released in the Naval Depot at Mechanicsberg, Penn, which had a mostly African-American civilian workforce. In testimony before Congress on the Mechanicsberg operation, a Department of Defense official said,“Since Negroes are more susceptible to coccidiodies than whites, this fungus disease was simulated by using” a mutant of Valley Fever.
The recent DOE report on slack procedures should hardly come as a surprise. In the past 40 years there have been over 5,000 laboratory-acquired infections among researchers. And 15 years ago a Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee found “serious deficiencies” exist in the safety procedures on biowar research. The danger from biological warfare is less likely to come from a terrorist organization than some government- run lab.
At this moment, more than 50 countries are meeting in Geneva in an effort to tighten up loopholes in the 1972 Treaty. Neither the Clinton nor Bush Administrations have been very helpful in this effort. The U.S. has consistently raised objections to on-site inspections of private industry (where much of the bioresearch in the U.S. takes place) and refuses to open the issue of “defensive” biological weapons. The Fifth Review Conference for the Treaty is scheduled for November, and a number of countries are trying to stiffen the Treaty’s provisions, particularly those relating to cheating.
If those efforts fail, then countries will begin to “research” what happened in Australia, only this time around it won’t be mice they’ll target. Let someone gene spice a pathogen to a Rhinovirus, or common cold, and global warming will only concern whatever species replaces us.
For more information on this subject, contact the Council for Responsible Genetics and its publication, Gene Watch (http://www.gene-watch.org