nytimes and san anto’s germlabbing

Despite the demanding pace of working in a very small newsroom dedicated to covering a wide swathe of South Texas, I’ve done my best to keep up with the bio-front’s many mutations and meanderings.

Along the way, I’ve run the daily through the grinder over their unpardonable bias regarding the “Hunt for N-BAF” – the top-flight federally proposed germlab that would research some of the deadliest diseases known, “zoonotic” diseases which pass back and forth between human and non-human animals.

The daily’s treatment, as well as your elected reps many statements on the topic, has been critically short-sighted, rarely venturing beyond the jingle of economic boosterism.

N-BAF, the National Bio- & Agro-Defense Facility, would replace the work currently done off the Eastern Seaboard at Plum Island, a site even Homeland Security admits poses a more secure location for numerous reasons. Building on Plum Island is still an option, it would just cost the Feds $200 million more than it would at most of the five other sites being considered. Construction in SA is expected to cost $500 million.

Though even the Ex-News had to budge when the U.S. General Accounting Office investigation found lax security at two of five high-risk BSL-4 labs in the country, one of which was SA’s Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. However, for the Express, the breaking news report appears to be the end of it. After all, SFBR has been trumpeted over and over again as an example of SA’s ability to handle deadly and highly-transmittable pathogens, a selling point for securing N-BAF.

However, the New York Times editorial board saw enough to be concerned about to spill some ink in yesterday’s paper.

We read:

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which regulates the facilities, contends that security differences stem from the different level of risk at each site, the defects identified are hard to defend.

Neither lab had a command and control center to monitor alarms and cameras and coordinate a response if security is breached. Also missing were barriers to keep vehicles from approaching, buffer zones, camera coverage of exterior entrances, intrusion detectors, closed-circuit television monitors and magnetometers and X-ray machines to screen visitors and packages. One had an exterior window that could provide direct access to the lab. At the other, investigators saw a pedestrian enter through an unguarded loading dock.

This also makes us wonder how well the laboratories are carrying out internal security measures, such as limiting access to sensitive rooms and equipment, maintaining accurate inventory records, and screening and training personnel. Even the Army’s own bioterrorism lab at Fort Detrick, Md., has suffered a shocking internal security failure, if the Federal Bureau of Investigation is right that a bioterrorism scientist there perpetrated the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001.

Leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are pressing the C.D.C. to identify all security shortcomings at the Level 4 laboratories, rectify the problems and establish minimum standards before any more of the labs are opened around the country. There is certainly no time to waste. Seven years after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, we find such lax security impossible to justify and deeply disturbing.

For the record Southwest Foundation has said they will upgrade their security if and when both the Texas Legislature and the CDC tell them to. Sounds like an ego-inflated game of bad brinksmanship to me.

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