Plans to construct a high-security biological research laboratory in Malaysia have caused some worry over possible proliferation of highly lethal disease materials, ProPublica reported yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 22, 2009).
Maryland-based Emergent BioSolutions and Ninebio Sdn Bhd., which is funded by the Malaysian Health Ministry, in 2008 announced a joint plan to construct a large complex at an industrial site not far from Kuala Lumpur for "vaccine development and manufacturing."
Emergent is the producer of the only U.S.-licensed anthrax vaccine (see related GSN story, today). The Emergent-Ninebio venture intends to manufacture halal-compliant vaccines for the international Muslim market. The complex is currently slated to begin work in 2013, according to an Emergent release.
The two firms intend to construct a"biocontainment R&D; facility that includes BSL ... 3 and 4 laboratories," According to online architectural plans for the 52,000-square-foot complex.
Biosafety Level 4 laboratories perform countermeasure research on diseases for which there are no known cures, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses. There are fewer than 40 such facilities in the world and none in Malaysia. The nation has three BSL-3 laboratories, which handle potentially deadly pathogens like anthrax and plague.
Biosecurity specialists point out that high-containment BSL-4 laboratories are high-value targets for terrorists, both for the deadly disease agents they house and for the advanced engineering tools which permits researchers to work with lethal pathogens without being infected.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen said during a House panel hearing in March that a critical aspect of today's biological weapon fears is "the growing biotechnology capacity in areas of the world with a terrorist presence."
Malaysia's history with terrorism includes the 2002 bomb attack by Malaysian-based extremists from Jemaah Islamiyah that killed 202 people at a popular nightclub in Bali, Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur served as the "primary operational launchpad" for al-Qaeda senior operatives planning the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the FBI. The Malaysian capital was also a key hub in the nuclear technology smuggling ring operated by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan (see GSN, March 14, 2005).
This has led some specialists to question if it is a good idea to support building a BSL-4 facility in the country.
"The question for (U.S. officials) is, 'How can we ensure a 'responsible' biotech sector in places like Malaysia, which are Muslim and are cranking out capable and well-educated scientists and have the money to build state-of-the-art facilities,'" said Edward Hammond, former head of the biological watchdog Sunshine Project.
Security specialists argue that having a U.S. firm such as Emergent involved in Malaysia's growing biotechnology industry would give Washington some degree of clout and authority over international biodefense work.
Malaysian authorities want the high-tech laboratories to respond to local epidemics of diseases such as SARS and Japanese encephalitis in addition to advancing research on cures for biological materials that could be used in acts of terrorism.
Kuala Lumpur has started to develop new biological security regulations that would meet U.S. standards. It has received assistance in the effort from the U.S. Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories, ProPublica reported.
European and U.S. nonproliferation specialists are pressing for stronger monitoring of ventures such as the Emergent-Ninebio project. Such controls include stricter export requirements, a "harmonizing" of international processes for guarding high-risk disease agents, and monitoring of biological manufacturing installations under the Biological Weapons Convention. The United States and Russia, however, are against site inspections and the likelihood of more effective oversight controls being put into effect is not known.
University of Illinois international law professor Francis Boyle, a longtime opponent of U.S. biodefense work, speculated that ventures like the one in Malaysia could be used to get around U.S. laws that prohibit biological research that could have offensive uses.
"It seems to me that this could be a very dangerous end-run by [Emergent BioSolutions] and its government funders around the numerous legal restrictions now put in place since 9/11 making it difficult to research, develop and test bioweapons domestically," Boyle said.
He said it made sense to question whether the Malaysian laboratory would be used in classified Defense Department and CIA-funded "laboratory threat characterization research" programs in which researchers create and test new disease agents under the auspices of improving medical treatments for those materials.
The Pentagon has not ruled out the possibility that such "Black Project" research could take place in Malaysia.
"We currently do not have [BSL-4] labs in Malaysia but we would be happy to collaborate with the government of Malaysia on biosurveillance, safety and security in the future," a Defense Department spokesman said (Coen/Nadler, ProPublica, Sept. 7).