American laboratories handling the world's deadliest germs and toxins have experienced more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003, and the number is increasing as more labs do the work.This risk has existed for some time, and it's growing. In 2003, after helping craft bioterror response to legislation during the 2003 78th Legislature, I was appointed on behalf of ACLU to Texas' Bioterrorism Preparedness Task Force.
No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents. But the documented cases reflect poorly on procedures and oversight at high-security labs, some of which work with organisms and poisons that can cause illnesses with no cure
Upon studying bioterror threats at some length, I became convinced that a graver risk existed from an accident among our own domestic "defense" programs rather than from Al Qaeda or some terrorist group. Perhaps the most concise statement of my view was laid out in this 2004 letter to a Texas Senate committee focused on bioterror threats, but more detailed (though unfinished, and only partially footnoted) analysis written in 2003. This last document was never published but shared widely among legislative and opinion leaders. I was actually always quite proud of this work and disappointed the public-safety solutions I proposed never gained traction in the homeland security or state health department.
Those interested in the topic should take a look at the linked historical documents, both written when I was in charge of homeland security issues for the ACLU of Texas. I came to believe that the problem identified in the AP story is a bigger threat than any terrorist-backed bioterror attack, Jack Bauer and 24 notwithstanding. And when a deadly pathogen with no cure is released in Houston or San Antonio or Galveston, it won't really matter who created it - just how many people die.
Remember the botched evacuation of Houston during Hurricane Rita? Imagine if the city were fleeing a major bioterror accident instead of a hurricane. A bioterror event would be a worst case scenario by comparison, and no sound emergency plans exist to manage an incident of significant magnitude - the cars stalled on the highway leaving Houston without gas two years ago proved that.
Nobody ever wanted to listen to those messages at the health department or the Governor's homeland security agency (which at the time ironically was headed by past-TYC conservator Jay Kimbrough). But I still think if the overall goal is public safety, reducing domestic experimentation with bioterror pathogens is the best way to reduce their availability to the bad guys and reduce the chance of public exposure.
For more on the subject: See the Sunshine Project's website.