Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on Washington’s fears about weak security at Africa’s infectious disease laboratories:
Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and a delegation of Pentagon officials visited the laboratories on Wednesday for the first stop on a three-country tour of East Africa to assess the next generation of American security concerns.
The team also visited the Uganda Virus Research Institute, where the Ebola and Marburg viruses are taken to study and kept in a spare room in a regular refrigerator near the bottom of the compound. Warning signs say “restricted access,” but the doctors there say that hardly means the area is secure.
Fears about Ugandan labs have become particularly penitent since Al-Shabab’s recent activity in the country. Without greater security, there is the real risk of disease specimens falling into the hands of non-state groups. Of course, this threat is contingent on these groups having the technical capacity to transport and weaponize the specimens, something easier said than done. Probably our best defense against this type of bioterrorism has nothing to do with ourselves and everything to do with the terrorist organizations. There are cheaper and more dependable methods of attacking US interests. Most Islamist groups have decades of experience with conventional explosives and might see little valuable in investing in a complicated and untried method of attack. From the perspective of an Islamist bomb-maker with finite resources, it is better to build 100 inkjet bombs than steal and weaponize an Ebola specimen from a Ugandan lab.
This does mean we can ignore the threat? No. We should take serious pause from the fact that the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo sent a medical team to Zaire in an attempt to research and weaponize Ebola. However, the technical difficulty of weaponizing infectious diseases combined with easy access to more conventional weapons does moderate the threat from insecure African laboratories.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.