bio-lab boosterousness

A day after I called our local paper down on the carpet for failing to ask more challenging questions about Homeland Security’s planned bioterror research goliath, the San Antonio Express-News’ top policy-recommenderers stumped for the National Bio- & Agro-Defense Facility again — as if this increasingly competitive process were as simple of cheering for your kids’ high school football team.

Sadly, this is not that. One fumble and thousands die and the economy takes a massive body blow.

Then, this morning, an Associated Press package on the injustices of the site selection process ran on the paper’s front page (right below a strong staff-written story on sprawl, which sprawled itself silly without landing any definable jabs worthy of the enormous space alloted to it).

The article, a process piece highlighting apparent political favoritism that kept Flora, Miss., on the short list of potential N-BAF sites while other “higher-scoring” sites were cut, including one in San Anto, was worth running. However, there have been many other lab-related stories — certainly more important ones where public safety is concerned — that have littered the news wires, packed the column inches in other dailies, that weren’t picked up by the Express-News, much less given this front-page treatment.

Consider:

Foot-and-mouth plan used flawed study

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration has no evidence to support its contention that it would be safe to move research on highly infectious foot-and-mouth disease to the U.S. mainland near livestock, congressional investigators said Thursday.

Or:

Report compares costs of animal disease outbreak

WASHINGTON — The government acknowledged that an outbreak of one of the most contagious animal diseases from any of five locations being considered for a new high-security laboratory — an event it considered highly unlikely — would be more devastating to the U.S. economy than an outbreak from the isolated island lab where such research is now conducted.

Or:

Is another Bruce Ivins lurking in a biolab?

WASHINGTON — There could be another Bruce Ivins lurking somewhere in a biodefense laboratory.These research facilities have expanded so quickly since the anthrax attacks in 2001 that the government cannot keep close tabs on the sites or their thousands of scientists. Security procedures are designed more to prevent accidents than to deal with security-cleared scientists who control their own lab.

Our local daily could have run any one of these stories that have surfaced in the last few months. They just chose not to.

Why do you suppose that is? Anything to do with my suggestion yesterday that the paper is using its sway to bring the project to San Antonio?

Now, the one wire story they chose to run does have problems. It wrongly limits the field of potential N-BAF sites to five. In fact, if you scanned the headlines above: The most secure site by Homeland Security’s own analysis — the existing Plum Island location off the Eastern Seaboard — is absent from the reported list of candidates.

The other thing that struck me is, while this may be the first front-page story to run in the X-News about N-BAF, it is also the most dramatically self-serving imaginable. The message is “we scored higher than Flora.” What the paper should be asking — given the incredible stakes involved for our community should any mishap occur — is: Where is the safest location for this research?

That question has already been answered. So, if AP reports call Flora a political decision, which it appears it is, what are we to call SA, or Athens, Ga., Manhattan, Kansas, or Butner, N.C.? They are economic (certainly not moral or ethical) decisions.

I just adore the Jean Patterson quote in one of those old boosterish X-News stories where she talks about the inconvenience of having to take a ferry to work.

“Plum Island is a terrible place to work,” Patterson [of Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in SA] said. “You have to take a ferry. You miss the ferry, you sleep on the lab floor.

“And so these people are going to want to come to a place where they’re going to have a real community, where there are things to do and they’re going to be excited about being in town. And with other scientists.”

Yeah, and those decontamination showers. What a drag. Let’s cut that out, too.

If this siting process is all about the scoring system, it should go to Butner. Only the politicians and public don’t want it there. My god, who doesn’t want a $500-million federal gimme? Well, these folks apparently.

Don’t you think we should be (publicly) asking why?

Here’s a place to start: 38 questions Homeland Security won’t answer…

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2 responses to “bio-lab boosterousness

  1. Just did the full Lexis search on Express-News coverage of NBAF over the past couple years.

    Number of articles written with an undeniably “positive” spin (Not including the generally neutral meetings and process updates or the two editorials):

    9;

    Number of stories from a more traditional skeptical newspaper approach:

    1.

    Breakdown
    Pro:
    Scientists like S.A.’s chances for lab, June 2006
    Scientists are smiling at the city’s chances of landing disease lab, June 2006
    Biodefense lab needs support of community, February 2007
    Texas’ biolab hopefuls united, May 2007
    Defense lab fans remain hopeful, June 2008
    Officials say S.A. ready for disease laboratory, August 2008
    Local backers positive about S.A.’s prospects for biological research lab, August 2008
    + two very-pro business columns

    Skeptical:
    Are biodefense labs a blessing or a curse? September 2007

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