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New Bio Hazard ‘Hot Spot’ in Latin America

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July 27, 2012 in Technology

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By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | JULY 27, 2012

No one can ever be too cautious when dealing with a bio threat, and there is not such a thing as an absolutely safe facility when dealing with dangerous pathogens. The fact that a laboratory is built and given a certain safety level in order to authorize it as a locale that is fitted to receive and analyze viruses, bacteria and other bio agents does not necessarily make it so. We can all agree that there are enough bio labs around the world that can be used to analyze and evaluate an unknown organism and determine whether it represents a threat to humanity or not.

The history of so-called maximum security bio labs that were the origin of bio leaks reinforces the fact that there are no 100% safe places to play around with dangerous microorganisms, especially when there is no need to do it. Although biological threat assessment is seen as the best way to prevent pandemics, because it allows scientists to safely study what a pathogen could do to us humans and other living things, one has to ask whether the increased risk to keep and manipulate such organisms is worthwhile, or if the creation of new high level bio labs is even necessary, given the fact that numerous accidents and non-accidents have occurred.

The number of  bio accidents in highly sophisticated labs, mainly in developed countries, caused most of humanity’s biggest nightmares. In most cases, diseases are studied, sometimes even manufactured or genetically engineered under the premise that it is necessary to create the disease in order to find the cure. This scenario took place when virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka experimented altering the genes of the H5N1 flu virus in order to supposedly study its mutagenesis. The results of the experiments and the procedures used to carry out those experiments were made public months later. In this case, a new highly virulent pathogen was created and then experiment was put out for anyone to try for themselves.

Despite the fact that history shows the risks outweigh the benefits, when playing God with dangerous pathogens, more high level facilities continue to open shop all over the world. In most cases these bio labs are financed by private enterprises such as large pharmaceutical conglomerates, however in the developing world, government usually picks up the tab. That is the case of Costa Rica, where the Institute for Research on Nutrition and Health (INCIENSA) has recently opened a level III Biohazard Containment Laboratory. Although the lab doesn’t have an urgent task to take on, except for studying cases of tuberculosis in that exist locally, taxpayers had to contribute with a big chunk of the ¢230 million, approximately, $453,000.

The idea behind the opening of bio labs such as the one in Tres Rios, Costa Rica, is that scientists must reduce the time between the discovery of new dangerous organism that is resistant to existent drugs, and the creation and implementation of medical countermeasures, like vaccines and new pharmaceuticals. However, as history shows, there isn’t such a thing as a cure for artificially created or naturally occurring organisms that may or may not cause pandemics. Decades or research have not been able to find a cure for AIDS, SARS, Bubonic plague, Dengue, and so on. That is why the rationale that opening more bio labs and creating dangerous microorganisms in order to save us all from a worldwide pandemic is simply flawed. The only goal that has been achieved with the current approach to dealing with disease is increase the economic benefits of the large pharmaceutical powerhouses.

There are two reason why bio research the way it is carried out today is simply a waste of time. First, research can never catch up with the evolution of microorganisms and the different number of paths their evolution can take. Put simply, science is always a step or two behind, especially after microorganisms have been continuously exposed to ineffective antibiotics. Second, what good does having hundreds or thousands of people participating of biological assessment and research do, when governments around the world openly conduct bio warfare experimentation, often on their own people? Unless science discovers new ways to effectively catch up with viral and bacterial evolution, for example, all monies and efforts being done in level III or IV bio labs are simply a waste of time and resources. Also, unless governments decide that experimenting on their people or on people from other regions of the world, there is no sense in investing resources on research for treatments or cures.

Although the effort to conduct research is welcomed in the case of Costa Rica, the truth is that Tuberculosis is one of the least important diseases one can think of when talking about the study of dangerous pathogens. According to the World Health Organization, Costa Rica had only 14 cases of tuberculosis for every 100,000 people for the years of 2008, 2009 and 2010. “The country did not have a lab so far and this helps us a lot, especially to identify drug-resistant tuberculosis,” says Carlos Trabado, the Coordinator of the National Center for Tuberculosis Research in Costa Rica. As it happens in other high level bio labs, the new level III lab in Costa Rica will have college students as part of the inexperienced labor force. “The university gives the students only a vague notion, but this is not enough to work here, so we give them continuous training,” said Trabado. Is it really a good idea to have college students handling bio threats, even with adult supervision?

During times when most nations see bio threat assessment as a way to create genetically modified pathogens as supposed to truly find cures for the existent ones, what could be the outcome  of more and more countries continuing to open bio hazard facilities to counteract supposed threats from foes or terrorist groups who may or may not possess a biological weapon? Isn’t the best way to end all biological threats to destroy all dangerous bio agents with all of their strains and close down the high level facilities from where one of those bio agents can escape or be carried out by inexperienced college students or dishonest workers? It has happened in the past, hasn’t it?

This is not to say that scientific research should not be conducted. The important thing is to always weigh the risks and the benefits before starting a new experiment or opening a new bio threat hot spot. There can never be too much caution or conformism when handling bio agents. However, that is not the idea one gets from Mr. Tratado, at the level III lab in Costa Rica. “Viruses and bacteria that come out of here will be already dead, or will simply not come out at all,” said Trabado. It is exactly this kind of absolutist self-assurance what causes most of the accidents in sensitive places such as level III Biohazard Containment Laboratories. Remember that level III is just one step below the top level, which is level IV.

The separation between a dangerous pathogen contained in a level III lab and the population is made by a mundane HEPA filter, before the air used in the inside of the lab is sent outside. HEPA filters of this kind remove “99.97% of all particles that are 0.3 micron or larger in size. Although right now scientific research seems to be focusing only on Tuberculosis, a real level III lab can handle much more dangerous microorganisms that may be transmitted via inhalation, that often need low doses to produce a massive infection that can cause serious or life-threatening disease. Among them, there are West Nile virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, Eastern equine encephalitis virus, SARS coronavirus, Salmonella typhi, Coxiella burnetii, Rift Valley fever virus, Rickettsia rickettsii, and yellow fever virus.


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