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African Pathogens Must Be Secured, Lugar Says

April 15, 2011


A senior U.S. senator highlighted the need to protect deadly pathogen samples housed in African laboratories from hostile actors who might seek to deploy them in a biological attack, Chemical & Engineering News reported on Monday (see GSN, Nov., 23, 2010).

During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union conducted research into the biowarfare uses of African-origin disease agents. While Russia has since shuttered that biological weapons effort, a number of those naturally occurring pathogens are sill being studied in facilities throughout Africa that often have limited defenses.

“Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are active in Africa, and it is imperative that deadly pathogens stored in labs there are secure. This is a threat we cannot ignore,” said Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a co-creator of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative.

Lugar and a delegation of U.S. defense officials traveled last fall to Uganda and Kenya to assess security at biological research facilities that stored such deadly agents as Ebola and anthrax. While biodefense laboratories in the United States that work with similarly dangerous pathogens have advanced security measures in place, defenses at the African research institutes were more likely to consist of barbed wire, according to the magazine.

At a laboratory in Uganda’s capital, the U.S. delegation observed significant security vulnerabilities including a failure to track which individuals had access to virus materials.

“Smaller regional facilities that collect samples directly from patients often have little or no security, unsecured and unlocked pathogen collections and open perimeters,” a Defense Department spokesman said.

“The work that has been performed at these labs is invaluable, and the world is better off for it,” Lugar said. “Without this research we would be even further behind the curve on potential outbreaks and new strains of deadly diseases like Ebola and anthrax.”

Still, biological pathogens can be weaponized “more simply than any dealing with chemical or nuclear devices,” the Indiana senator said. “Just one of the deadly viruses I witnessed could, if in the wrong hands, cause death and economic chaos.” Coordinated terrorist strikes in Uganda in 2010 “have brought this threat into sharper focus.” he added.

The Obama administration intends to complete research and safeguards compacts with Kenya and Uganda. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently gave the go-ahead to expanding CTR nonproliferation operations — which has been almost entirely focused on the former Soviet Union — to Africa “with cooperative biological engagement activities in mind,” the Pentagon spokesman said.

A significant objective the new biodefense collaboration efforts is to “bring key facilities that house dangerous pathogens up to U.S. safety and security standards,” he said.

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2012 budget request allocates $260 million for WMD threat reduction programs focused on blocking terrorist access to biological weapon materials. “Additional funds will be allocated for expansion of CTR activities in Africa,” according to the Defense Department official (Glenn Hess, Chemical & Engineering News, April 11).

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