The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Slapstick that Kills

I actually looked at this article because I've done some work researching pandemics in the not-too-distant past.

U.S. labs mishandling deadly germs

American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing steadily as more labs across the country are approved to do the work. . . .

The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the AP, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 — nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

My interest in the story is over the debate on the benefits of collaborative research vs. the risks of shipping incredibly dangerous stuff across the country and around the world. But a paragraph further down really made me wonder:

Research labs have worked for years to find cures and treatments for diseases. However, the expansion of the lab network has been dramatic since President Bush announced an upgrade of the nation's bio-warfare defense program five years ago. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funds much of the lab research and construction, was spending spent about $41 million on bio-defense labs in 2001. By last year, the spending had risen to $1.6 billion.

Two things: 1) isn't this sadly typical? And 2) why have I not heard anything about this before?

1. In about the zillionth example of the failure of modern conservatism, we once again see "small government" defined as bigger government with increased regulations. In this case, a dramatic expansion of a government program without a concomitant increase in things like safety and oversight. And it doesn't take a CEO to realize that when you ask for more and more output from the same resources, things begin to go wrong. Like Lucy and Viv in the chocolate factory, but with anthrax.

2. For an administration and GOP that defines nuclear safety as spending billions on pointless next-gen nuclear weapons, what does "bio-warfare defense" mean, exactly? It could just mean researching antidotes for existing toxins. But that isn't the neo-con way. No, I suspect it's closer to "let's create the deadliest agent the world has ever seen and make sure only we have the cure." Distressingly plausible from this bunch, but whatever the case, there's the same prosaic explanation:

Accidents aren't the only concern. While medical experts consider it unlikely that a lab employee will become sick and infect others, these labs have strict rules to prevent anyone from stealing organisms or toxins and using them for bioterrorism.

The reports were so sensitive the Bush administration refused to release them under the Freedom of Information Act, citing an anti-bioterrorism law aimed at preventing terrorists from locating stockpiles of poisons and learning who handles them.

Which makes sense to a point, but not when the result is to increase danger to the public by covering up more unfunny screw-ups from the Jerry Lewis of presidents.