Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Much ado about bioweapons

The AP is going for public hysteria with their report on lab mishaps involving potential bioweapon agents, but they've missed the mark. Judging from the accounts they relay, the real threat isn't to the public at large, but rather to the lab employees working with these deadly pathogens. In most of the incidents, containment procedures were utilized and it doesn't appear there was ever any risk of spreading these diseases amongst the general population.

The story seems to be written from the perspective of someone who expects there to be absolutely no mistakes. That seems to be a naive view at best, given that humans do nothing if not make mistakes. That's why containment procedures and strategies, such as negative air flow and wearing protective equipment, are already in place at labs that handle these agents.

The reporting also attempts to be manipulative and alarming. Although the main thrust of the story is incidents at U.S. labs, the reporter attempts to arouse alarm by citing the situation in Britain in which a lab screwup may have spread foot and mouth disease. The reader is left on his own to work out the mystifying details of how British lab procedures have any connection to U.S. lab policies.

Then immediately after a paragraph informing the reader of the restrictions for working in Biosafety Level 4 labs ("Besides wearing full-body, air-supplied suits, workers undergo extensive background checks and carry special identification cards") , there's this unexplained quote from Edward Hammond, with the Sunshine Project, which tracks lab incidents:

"The risk that a killer agent could be set loose in the general population is real."

That's a serious allegation and it should be followed by some credible evidence to back it up. There's none. In fact, the report had previously told us, "No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents."

The only real risk mentioned in the article (lost shipments of deadly organisms) is only touched on briefly and even that appears to have amounted to nothing. "Some recount missing or lost shipments, including plague bacteria that was supposed to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 2003. The wayward shipment was discovered eventually in Belgium and incinerated safely."

I agree with the premise of the article that potential bioweapons should always be handled with the utmost caution. But I'm disappointed AP apparently didn't heed its own advice.

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