National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center
|This article is outdated. (November 2010)|
The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) is a government biodefense research laboratory created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and located at the sprawling biodefense campus at Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD, USA. Created quietly a few months after the 2001 anthrax attacks, the NBACC (pronounced EN-back) is intended to be the principal U.S. biodefense research institution engaged in laboratory-based threat assessment and bioforensics. NBACC will be an important part of the National Integrated Biodefense Campus (NIBC) also being built at Fort Detrick for the US Army, National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Agriculture.
Mission and operations
The core of the NBACC facility (currently under construction) is a cluster of laboratories ranging from BSL-2 to BSL-4 built to hold and assess the threat of small amounts of bacteria and viruses to the people of the United States. Part of the NBACC’s mission is to conduct realistic tests of the pathogens and tactics that might be used in a bioterrorism attack. It seeks to quantitatively answer questions pertaining to what might happen in a biological attack.
The NBACC will be equipped to develop and investigate genetically engineered viruses and bacteria. New and emerging technologies will be evaluated along with delivery devices that U.S. adversaries might use to disseminate the pathogens.
The NBACC coordinates closely with the many Departments and Agencies in the U.S. government, including the U.S. intelligence community which has assigned advisers to the Center.
In June 2006, construction began on a new $128 million, 160,000 sq ft (15,000 m2) facility inside the Ft. Detrick installation. Space inside the 8-story, glass-and-brick structure, scheduled to open in 2008, will be divided between NBACC's two centers:
- The Biological Threat Characterization Center (BTCC), which seeks to identify and prioritize biological threats and our vulnerabilities to those threats through its laboratory threat assessments.
- The National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC), a forensic testing center equipped to identify and characterize the possible culprit pathogens after an attack has already occurred
The BTCC will include biocontainment suites, including BSL- 2, 3, and 4 laboratory space, air-handling equipment, security controls, and other supporting features. The new building will be classified as a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility; access will be severely limited and all of the activity and conversation inside will be presumed restricted from public disclosure.
Until its new building is completed, the NBFAC (in collaboration with the FBI) is borrowing floorspace from the US Army's biodefense facility (see USAMRIID) at Ft Detrick.
The NBACC expects to eventually employ about 120 researchers and support staff.
A business entity spun off from Battelle Memorial Institute will manage NBACC for DHS as an FFRDC. Battelle is well suited for this job as it has experience successfully running other US National Laboratories.
Questions have been raised by some arms-control and international law experts as to the necessity and advisability of the very high level of security surrounding the NBACC and as to whether it does (or will) place the United States in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). (The BWC outlawed developing, stockpiling, acquiring or retaining pathogens "of types and in quantities that have no justification" for peaceful purposes.) Experts at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity have been particularly vocal in their criticism.
NBACC’s opponents contend that the facility will operate in a “legal gray zone” and skirt the edges of the BWC which outlaws production of even small amounts of biological weapons. They contend that a high degree of transparency is needed to reassure Americans (and the rest of the world) of the U.S. government's good intentions. In their view, the U.S. government may find it hard in the future to object to other countries testing genetically engineered pathogens and novel delivery systems when they invoke their own national biodefense requirements.
The Bush administration contends that the NBACC is purely defensive and thus its operations are fully legal and in accord with the BWC. A principle is that assessing the technical threat of biological pathogens is essential to inform and help develop biodefense policy. Administration officials say that making small amounts of biowarfare pathogens for study is permitted under a broad interpretation of the treaty. (Some legal experts counter that the treaty does not actually make any distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” activities or intent.)
Officials say that NBACC's work will be carefully monitored and in compliance with the bioweapons convention guidelines as well as normal scientific oversight. The latter will consist, in addition to DHS internal review boards, of a conventional peer-review process involving small groups of scientists who are independent of the research in question (albeit all with government security clearances). However, some activists and bioweapons experts have called for unusual forms of oversight for the NBACC, including panels of well-respected, internationally-known scientists and outside observers from other countries.
On the security "overkill" issue, officials say that much of the lab's less-sensitive work is to be made public eventually.
- Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh, PA; directed by Tara O'Toole, founded by D.A. Henderson.
Notes and references
- Warrick, Joby, "The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror", The Washington Post; Sunday, July 30, 2006; A01.
- Hernandez, Nelson, "Huge New Biodefense Lab Is Dedicated At Fort Detrick", Washington Post, October 23, 2008; p. B1.