Until the anthrax attacks of 2001, Bruce Ivins was one of just a few dozen American bioterrorism researchers working with the most lethal biological pathogens, almost all at high-security military laboratories.
Today, there are hundreds of such researchers at universities and other institutions around the U.S., preparing for the next bioattack.
But the revelation that FBI investigators believe that the anthrax attacks were carried out by Ivins, an Army biodefense scientist who committed suicide last week after he learned he was about to be indicted for murder, has already re-ignited a debate: Has the unprecedented boom in biodefense research made the country less secure by multiplying the places and people with access to dangerous germs?
“We are putting America at more risk, not less risk,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of a House panel that has investigated recent safety lapses at biolabs.
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FBI investigators have long speculated that the motive for the attacks, if carried out by a biodefense insider like Ivins, might have been to draw public attention to a dire threat, attracting money and prestige to a once-obscure field.
If that was the motive, it succeeded. In the years since anthrax-laced letters were sent to members of Congress and news organizations in late 2001, almost $50 billion in federal money has been spent to build labs and develop vaccines.
Federal officials say they are convinced that the surge in spending has brought gains.
“Across the spectrum of biothreats we have expanded our capacity significantly,” said Craig Vanderwagen, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services who oversees the biodefense effort. Systems to detect an attack, investigate it and respond with drugs, vaccines and cleanup are all hugely improved, Vanderwagen said.
But the proliferation of biodefense research laboratories presents real threats, too, congressional investigators recently warned.
More people in more places handling toxic agents creates more opportunities for an accident or intentional misuse by an insider, Keith Rhodes, an investigator with the Government Accountability Office, said at a congressional hearing in October.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 14,000 people working at about 400 laboratories who have permission to work with so-called “select agents,” although a much smaller amount of this research involves the most dangerous materials, like anthrax.