Homeland

BSL-4 WorldA new report shows an increasing global population exposed to the risk of accidents from biosafety laboratories studying some of the world’s most dangerous diseases.

Princeton University post-doc Thomas Van Boeckel and colleagues show the population living within the commuting field of BSL-4 labs increased by a factor of four from 1990 to 2012. The fields encapsulate nearly 2% of the world’s population, but by virtue of infectivity any one escape pathogen may turn epidemic.

The team mapped friction surfaces of the commuting time over which a potentially infected lab worker would carry an infection home. The resulting isochronal belts were used to determine the population within the direct vicinity of each lab.

The increase in the population at risk appears largely driven by a surge in global BSL-4 labs, from 12 in 1990 to 52 in 2012. While an estimate of nearly 250 million people appear within a 60-minute commute of these labs, smaller commuting fields, embodying urban cores, contained much greater proportions of the population than expected by geometry alone.

The effect was particularly pronounced for many newly built BSL-4 in Asia, write Van Boeckel’s team, but apparent elsewhere,

By 2010, new facilities had been constructed in densely-populated areas in Europe (London, Milan, Hamburg) and in Asia (Taiwan, Singapore). According to the predictions for the post 2010 era, India will make a noticeable entry in this ranked list, with the country’s first two BSL-4 facilities being built in Pune (5.5 million inhabitants) and Bhopal (1.8 million inhabitants).

Since 9/11 thousands of BSL-3 and -4 labs have been built across the world for studying pathogens, among others, terrorists might use. Accidents have been occurring in these labs with “alarming regularity,” Laurie Garrett reported in 2011.

The accidents suggest the possibility, if not the probability, the release of a bioengineered agent will be inflicted by the government-industrial complex dedicated to blocking such attacks.

The growing sample size of labs turns accidental unlikelihoods toward graver possibilities. “A chance event with low probability,” biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin wrote of scale effects of randomness, “becomes a determinate certainty when there are a large number of opportunities.”

Unfortunately the development, a postmodern appointment in Samarra, operationalizes terrorist strategy by which industrial powers are goaded into overreacting. Blowback now extends beyond the battlefield and into civilian infrastructure.

Van Boeckel and colleagues call for global regulation of a proliferation of biosafety labs that appears, in my view, driven by ideological compulsion, scientific competition, and runaway Keynesianism. Under the present political order any such moratorium largely involves appealing to the very authorities building the labs.

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