Many people are uneasy about having a germ warfare lab at Dugway Proving Ground. A group of scientists, medical doctors, and others at the University of Utah is no exception. But rather than simply issue a blanket condemnation of biological warfare research, the Utah people this week offered some specific suggestions.
A petition signed by 140 scientists and medical experts has credibility, not only because of the expertise of the people who signed it, but because the group recognizes the Pentagon's responsibility to provide defense against possible biological warfare.The biologists in the group don't like to see the dramatic technology of genetic engineering used as a weapon of war. They feel the Army's plans to construct a Biological Aerosol Test Facility at Dugway - at the highest level of biological containment - is merely a prelude to using the lab to produce genetically engineered biowarfare agents.
But beyond that basic dislike, the scientists think such research is highly hazardous and should be handled differently than planned.
Instead of using real disease-causing germs in the research, particularly exotic genetically-engineered pathogens that could produce diseases that could not be diagnosed or treated, the research should use simulants, the petition signers say. These simulated germs are safer and produce reliable research results.
In addition, they claim the proposed research approach is badly flawed. The Army's plan apparently is to produce a variety of genetically-engineered pathogens and then find defenses for each one. Because of the almost unlimited variety of such agents, that approach limits any defense to only a few of the possible threats. The Utah people say it makes more sense for defensive research to be general, rather than specific.
In such an approach, the emphasis would be totally on defensive research, rather than creating new organisms that would have offensive capability.
Finally, the petition signers are urging that biological warfare research be reviewed by non-military committees of physicians, scientists, and citizens, and be done in the open. While totally open research might not be feasible, some civilian oversight surely would be helpful.
As Utahns have learned over the years, Army activities conducted in total secrecy at Dugway have had some negative consequences. That does not inspire confidence and blind trust for the future.
The signers of the petition are not radical students looking for a cause. They are mature professionals and some of the finest scientists to be found anywhere. Their ideas deserve careful consideration.