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In the Name of Defence

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IN FEBRUARY of 2005, the US Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of a new facility to study the threat from biological weapons. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC, pronounced en-back) is currently being built at Fort Detrick in Maryland at a projected cost of $128 million. It will have enough lab space to fill a football pitch, and 20 per cent of it will offer the highest level of containment, Biosafety Level 4, designed to handle the most dangerous and exotic pathogens. The entire compound will operate under the same level of secrecy used to protect nuclear weapons information and other matters of national security considered to be unusually sensitive.

This kind of secrecy is cause for concern because of the destructive potential NBACC will explore. It has said that it will study the genetic manipulation of pathogen virulence, the dynamics of aerosol dispersion and other ways of delivering biological agents. NBACC argues it is necessary to study advanced offensive applications of biotechnology so that protective countermeasures can be developed.

The problem is that this kind of work may contravene the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. NBACC says its work is defensive in character, but by secretly exploring potential offensive applications, the US is behaving in a way it would not tolerate from other countries. The danger, say critics, is that setting up such a facility could encourage other countries to do the same. And if that happens, NBACC will have helped to create the very threat it professes to counter.