Sunday, February 9, 2014

Assessing a BW Laboratory: Technical Methods Part Two

Author's note: All material below is drawn from open source literature and is available on line. While it is tempting to consider that the type of laboratory for which identification is critical would be at a BSL 3 or 4 level, this is not generally the case. Typically clandestine programs use lower level lab security to work on highly pathogenic agents. In some instances, a BSL 3 can utilize BSL 3+ in decontamination processess and even with regard to bio-safety standards typically found in Western laboratories. The photos provided of BSL 3 and 4 facilities are not intended to represent necessarily the type of facility that would typically be involved in work on highly pathogenic or Category A agents in a clandestine weapon lab or infrastructure. In fact BSL 4 in particular are rather rare (some will argue that the numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades, but proportionately they are the exception). A BSL 4 usually stands out even in an attempt to conceal weapon research. Unless its burried it will incure some speculation so the type of laboratory infrastructure which this paper addresses and which I wrote back in 2009, is intended to review more mundane laboratories BSL 1, 2 and 3.

Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories are among the most complex facilities to design, operate and maintain. See:

Let's take a look at methods used to identify underground facilities as this is problematic. both in terms of nuclear weapon programs but also very much in terms of biological weapon laboratories.  Assessing an above ground laboratory for BW traits posses fewer obsticals. A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 372 entitled: Underground Facilities: Intelligence and Targeting Issues, provides background into concerns arising over the use of underground or hardened facilities. The archieve brief states:

"The concern about underground facilities (or 'hard and buried' targets) is evident  in the establishment of a number of components in various intelligence and defence agencies. The National Reconnaissance Office has a Hard and Buried Targets Working Group, while the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, had (as of 2005) an Information and Underground Issues Division in its analysis directorate, and by 2008, the Defence Threat Reduction Agency had Hard Target Research and Analysis Center (4). But the most significant indication of the concern about underground facilities was the establishment, in 1997 of the Underground Facility Analysis Center (UFAC), which while subordinate to DIA also relies on participatoin from a number of other intelligence agencies. Exactly how many facilities around the world fall into each category is not clear, particularly not at the unclassified level. But a 2001 report to Congress (Document23) noted the Intelligence Community's suspicion that there were over 10,000 potential hard and buried targets and that number owuld increase over the next decade. 

U.S. intelligence requirements with respect to monitoring underground facilities can be divided into four basic categories. The first is verifying the existence of such a facility at a specific location, hints of which may come from intelligence sources or claims that may emanate from defectors. A second requirement is determining the facility's mission--whether it be leadership protection, weapons production, weapons storage or something else. The third requirement is the develoment of specific intelligence concerning the facility-including its physical layout and size, the number of personnel, the equipment present, and its capability and/or output-whether that be the number of troops that can pass through a tunnel, the number of weapons stored, or the facility's ability to produce enriched uranium or a biological agent. The intelligence developed concerning those requirements can be employed to assess a foreign capabilities, monitor treaty compliance, as well as plan or conduct military operations." 

Laboratory Identification

Considering the analysis required to determine if an underground laboratory exists is largely the pervue of the US intelligence community (IC). As a general rule, because most BW programs have tended to be embedded in legitimate research, civilian bio-pharma infrastructures (hiding in plane site approach), I will focus on above ground laboratory BW infrastructures first, then discuss military labs which have a higher probability of being constructed specifically to avoid identification. A number of characteristic are present in clandestine WMD programs, not solely related to BW research and development however, a hallmark of BW is compartmentalization. Nearly all clandestine biological weapon programs share this trait. This characteristic has historically diverted indentification of said infrastructures. It should also be noted that while most pharmaceutical firms are subordinate to the Ministry of Health or Education, institutes suspected of conducting BW research are often subordinate to the respective Ministry of Defence or state security services. Moreover, laboratory scientific staff may be drawn from sections of the military or have a military or security service background. The interface between military and civilian institutions, a sophisticated clandestine network covering tens or hundreds of facilities or any other military or security section is highly concerning. At the facility level there are often, but not always, specific indicators of a possible BW program.

John Pike detailed criteria for assesing a potential weapon lab at the technical level which often poses the most difficulty. I have argued for the use of network analysis in identifying would be weaponeers across a latent infrastructure but Pike's work is truely inspiring.  In his work entitled: Biological Warfare Agent Production, see: John, “Biological Warfare Agent Production”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, GlobalSecurity.Org. He offers an indepth analysis with rather precise indicators for assessing a biological weapon research and development laboratory and program:  . 

"The design of a production facility provides important information regarding whether the facility is intended to produce pharmaceutical grade products or biological weapon grade materials. Relevant design elements include containment, purification equipment, sterilization equipment, and ventilation and filtration systems.Relevant design elements include containment, purification equipment, sterilization equipment, and ventilation and filtration systems." 

The following overview provided by Pike in GlobalSecurity.Org., defines at the facility level and laboratory level, quite precise indicators for assessing a biological weapon research and development program: 

“The design of a biochemical processing plant is an important signal of covert biological agent production. Containment of the biological material during processing is of special interest. There is a clear distinction between processing materials for biological or toxin agent weaponization and processing protective agents to be used for countermeasures or personnel performance enhancement. For the production of biological agents for offensive military activities, the processing containment requirement is to protect the environment from the agent because of its infectious nature. For the production of biomaterials, such as vaccines, biological response modifiers, antibiotics, and anti-viral agents, for defensive military activities, the containment requirement is to protect the processed biomaterial from contaminating materials in the environment.”

“Effectiveness of countermeasures is enhanced by achieving high levels of purity and cleanliness in the product before it is administered to friendly personnel. By contrast, an unpurified biological agent that will be used in BW is generally more stable than the purified agent that is needed to produce vaccines and biological response modifiers (BRMs). Consequently, a proliferant does not require a high level of purity if production is for BW use only.”

“Generation of biological agents requires fermenters or single cell production capabilities including smooth, highly polished stainless steel surfaces, self-containment capability, and negative pressure conditions. The primary difference between the production requirements for biological weapons and non-military commercial purposes lies in containment and contamination. During biological agent production, efforts are generally made to avoid contaminating the environment with the organism. Less concern arises about the contamination of the product. Conversely, the pharmaceutical, brewing, and biotechnology industries are most concerned about protecting the purity and quality of the product. This concern is reflected in the nature of the sealing joints, positive or negative pressure chambers, and containment of venting systems. Utilities involving clean steam, sterile air, and inert gas supply are most critical for containment in the processing of biologically based materials for human use, which must meet good manufacturing practices (GMP). Clean steam, generated from a purified water supply, must be supplied to all processing equipment having direct contact with the product to ensure sterility and prevent the influx of environmental contaminants.”

“Steam sterilization is accomplished before product processing by direct supply to the equipment. Steam is supplied to the equipment seals (e.g., sample ports, agitator shafts, raw material addition ports) during processing as a primary barrier. Equally important is the removal of collapsed steam or condensate formed on the equipment. This prevents the formation of pockets of standing water, which promote bacterial growth, and maintains the high temperature necessary for sterilization. The collected contaminated condensate can be channelled to an area for final sterilization or inactivation before it is released into the environment. Efficient steam supply and condensate removal requires pressure regulators, pressure relief devices, venting, and the capability for free draining of all lines.”

“Supplying sterile, inert gases to processing equipment is a method of containment. This can protect oxygen-sensitive biomaterials and prevent aerosol generation of toxic products. Inert gases, such as nitrogen, helium, and argon, are usually supplied directly to processing equipment through sterile, in-line filters, maintaining a pressurized system or providing an inert blanket over the product in processing vessels.”

“To attain a higher level of containment, many bioprocessing industries have employed greater degrees of automation. Potential contamination of purified product, human exposure to toxic products or constituents, and the risk of human error are minimized. Processing facilities make use of state-of-the-art computerized distributed control systems (ABB, Modicon, Allen Bradley Corp.), which allow automatic control, control from remote locations, and automatic data logging and trending.”

“Another component in bio-processing is the design of ventilation within the primary and secondary barriers of a process area. Ventilation at primary barriers (i.e., barriers separating product from equipment operators and the rest of the processing area) is accomplished with dedicated, in-line air/gas membrane filters. Ventilation across secondary barriers requires more complicated air handling system design to allow for the maintenance of clean areas (rated by the number of particles per volume of air) and maintenance of positive or negative pressure between the processing area and the outside environment or between different processing areas in the same facility. Equipment used in these designs includes high efficiency fans and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.”

“The procedure used for the actual replication of an organism is a function of the organism itself. Techniques include cell culture, fermentation, viral replication, recombinant DNA, and powdering and milling. Cell culture is necessary for the reproduction of pathogenic viruses and Rickettsiae since they will not reproduce outside a living cell (e.g., chick embryo or tissue cultures). Single cell growth chambers, including fermentation, are used for the production of bacteria and bacterial toxins, although some bacteria (e.g., plague bacteria) can also be cultivated in living animals. Recombinant DNA techniques are a preferred method to produce rare animal toxins. Because of the complexity of this technique, the capability is not as widespread as the others. Powdering and milling is the technique generally used to produce BW and toxin weapons (TW) agent particles having diameters less than or equal to 10 mm, the size most effective for respiratory delivery.”

“Toxins and pathogens that affect animals, such as anthrax, brucella, plague, and tularemia, are widespread. Vaccines are widely produced and administered. The issue of the need for the same toxic agent for either BW/TW production or countermeasure vaccine production emphasizes the dual-use nature of the technologies. Indeed, initial processing of agents and processing of their associated vaccines only differ by a few steps (e.g., the degree of purification and the type of containment used).”

While we may be able to assess a lab above ground, I well imagine the criticizm will be 'what if the lab is underground?' The criteria above would not apply. After international criticism that the United States failed to find a biological weapon program in Iraq, which I would argue, after extensive talks with weapons inspectors and then heads of those inspection teams, existed but was never presented to the media or public in a way they could understand, intent on finding an 'obsolete' stockpile, not realizing that biological weapon programs simply were no longer constructed along the old Soviet model of stockpiling BW in vast quantities. In fact I would argue an agile program is far more efficient and deadly than a strategic stockpile, particularly if we are looking at profiles that involve state sponsored and highly trained terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.

The BBC has a rather nice overview of the first round of inspections for interest please see:
Dragon voice recognition

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