11 November 2010
Uganda Bioterrrorism Target Eyeball
Uganda Seen as a Front Line in the Bioterrorism Fight
By JOSH KRON
Published: November 10, 2010
ENTEBBE, Uganda The laboratories of Ugandas Ministry of Agriculture,
Animals, Industry and Fisheries sit on the top of a quiet hill on a turnoff
near the airport, behind an eroded fence. At the end of a hallway is a room
with an unlocked refrigerator.
That is where the anthrax is kept.
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
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.
The laboratories here in Entebbe, a warm and sleepy city on the shores of
Lake Victoria, are part of what the delegation called the front lines of
the struggle to counter terrorist threats around the world.
We need to tighten the security of vulnerable public health laboratories
in East Africa, said Andrew C. Weber, assistant to the secretary of
defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs.
Preventing terrorist acquisition of dangerous pathogens, the seed material
for biological weapons, is a security imperative.
The rise of the Shabab, the powerful Islamist insurgent group that claimed
responsibility for deadly suicide bombings in Uganda as crowds gathered to
watch the final match of the World Cup, has refocused attention on East Africa
as a frontier in American security interests.
In 2004, Congress expanded the mandate of the Nunn-Lugar program, which
originally focused on dismantling warheads in former Soviet states, to include
geographic regions like this one. Now, Mr. Lugars trip will take the
delegation to Uganda, Burundi and then Kenya.
Uganda, a longtime military ally of the United States, may be the most vivid
illustration of the concerns. Warm, wet and on the equator, Uganda is a
biological petri dish. Anthrax has killed hundreds of hippopotamuses in recent
years. In 2008, a Dutch tourist died from Marburg disease after visiting
a cave in a national park. In 2007, an Ebola outbreak killed more than 20
This is the stuff of Hot Zone and Outbreak novels
that have dramatized the dangers of viral outbreaks. But the underlying threat,
American officials contend, is that lax security at the poorly financed labs
that collect and study these diseases pose a bioterrorism risk.
Ugandan officials also say the countrys push to create new federal
districts, part of what the government calls an effort to decentralize the
country, has spread the bureaucracy so thin that disease samples can take
weeks to make it to a laboratory, or never arrive at all.
It makes it difficult to report new cases, said Dr. Nicholas
Kauta, a commissioner at the Ministry of Agriculture. We dont
know what is around us.
The laboratories at the Ministry of Agriculture, built in the 1920s, have
broken windows, and a chain-link fence surrounding the compound is ripped.
According to the commissioner, there used to be over 200 technical staff
members, but now there are only six. In the anthrax laboratory, one doctor
showed how to use a cellphone camera placed on top of a microscope to study
the bacteria, a demonstration of the lack of proper equipment.
These are cries for assistance that the U. S. is eager to provide,
Mr. Lugar said.
At the Uganda Virus Research Institute, there are state-of-the-art facilities
run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an American agency,
but not at all of it. The deadliest agents, including Ebola, are still kept
downstairs in a room intended to handle lesser infectious diseases like
This is the end-state, said Lt. Col. Jay Hall, from the Defense
Threat Reduction Agency, pointing out the disease control agency laboratories
upstairs. This is where we want to get all other labs.