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Anthrax War: The Malaysian Connection

Corporations and governments are taking steps to guard against deadly germ attacks. But some of these efforts could actually be creating a threat.

Fears about bioterrorism have prompted new efforts by corporations and governments worldwide to build defenses against germ attacks. But some of these arrangements themselves raise security issues.

Consider the spirited global contest to corner the franchise on providing halal inoculations against anthrax and other deadly pathogens to the world's 1.7 billion Muslims.

Devout Muslims have an understandable aversion to being injected with vaccines grown in pig cells or alcohol, the methods traditionally used by the world's leading pharmaceutical firms to manufacture such drugs. The reluctance of Muslims to accept non-halal polio injections has been linked to the re-emergence of polio in 27 countries that had been free of the debilitating disease, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Enter Emergent BioSolutions, a Rockville, Md., firm with expanding multinational operations that sells a vaccine against anthrax to the U.S. government.

In January 2008, in a little-noticed deal, Emergent, or EBS, announced a joint venture with a firm funded by the Malaysian Health Ministry to build 52,000 square feet of "vaccine development and manufacturing infrastructure" on a 62-acre site in an industrial park just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

"It is our belief that this joint venture will not only expand the use of our anthrax vaccine in this market, but will also serve as a platform for joint product development and manufacturing activities," Fuad El-Hibri, chief executive of Emergent (the majority partner), said of the deal with Ninebio Sdn Bhd.

"It is anticipated that the joint venture will also supply such products and services to certain member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference ("OIC") and other countries within Asia," an EBS press release said. The facility was originally scheduled to open this year, but is now set to begin operations in 2013.

On a Web page describing architectural plans for the Malaysian venture is a sentence that has raised some eyebrows. It says the companies plan to build a "biocontainment R&D facility that includes BSL ... 3 and 4 laboratories."

Biosafety Level 3 ("high-containment") labs are for disease-causing organisms that can cause death in humans, such as anthrax, plague and SARS. Malaysia already has three BSL-3 labs, and there are several thousand worldwide (1,356 in the U.S. alone).

Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs are for diseases that are one step up in the pathogen chain -- invariably fatal, highly contagious and for which no known vaccine or cure exists. Within these labs, the most-dangerous "select agents" -- Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Lassa fever and other hemorrhagic fevers -- are used in countermeasure research, including vaccines, to thwart 21st-century delivery systems and genetic manipulation of these natural horrors. BSL-4's have special safety features, including the use of full-body suits equipped with life support systems.

These would be Malaysia's first BSL-4 labs. Proliferation experts note that these high-security laboratories -- fewer than three dozen are currently operating worldwide -- are themselves valuable items. The specialized engineering that allows scientists to safely handle such deadly germs is coveted by terrorists as much as the pathogens within carefully secured walls.

Geography also counts. In March, Assistant Secretary of State Vann H. Van Diepen told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism that one key component of the new "biological threat" is "the growing biotechnology capacity in areas of the world with a terrorist presence."

Malaysia, where six in 10 citizens are Muslims, was tied to several terrorist plots earlier in the decade. Al-Qaida leaders used Kuala Lumpur as the "primary operational launch pad" for the 9/11 attacks, the FBI says. An organization known as Jemaah Islamiyah operating out of Malaysia bombed a disco in neighboring Bali in 2002, killing 202 people; the group's leaders were subsequently arrested and executed by Indonesian authorities.