As the West's war of nerves with the Russian Federation heats up, Africa’s latest Ebola outbreak is being viewed as both an ominous foreboding and welcome opportunity by San Diego's growing military-biotech establishment.
Escaping media notice until this month's Ebola crisis, the local germ-warfare industry — bankrolled largely by the U.S. Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (known as DARPA)— has its roots 3000 miles away in Fort Detrick, Maryland,
The old Army base is home to the nation's top-secret biological warfare program, where Armageddon-like war games play out regularly.
"Since Ebola finds its way into the respiratory tract, U.S. Army researchers at Fort Detrick, Maryland, tried to see if a terrorist might be able to concoct an Ebola bomb,” wrote Alan Weisman in his 2008 book The World Without Us.
“They created an aerosol capable of spreading the virus back to animals," Weisman reported, adding that the particles generated by the Army researchers ultimately turned out to be inadequate for transmission to humans.
"But if one Ebola strain, Reston, ever mutated, we might have a problem. Currently, it kills only nonhuman primates; unlike other Bolas, however, it is believed to attack through the air.”
Though president Richard Nixon ordered an end to offensive biological research in November 1969, details of Fort Detrick's subsequent mission have been cloaked in secrecy, leading some to suggest that if the Russians were ever to surface Ebola-like agents in Africa, the lab's priorities could be quickly shifted by command of the current or a future president.
Two local key players in the post–Cold War chess game of killer diseases have been Kevin J. Whaley and Larry Zeitlin, principals of Sorrento Valley–based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, credited with developing the anti-Ebola antibody treatment now being used on two infected missionaries.
"No countermeasures currently exist for the prevention or treatment," of Ebola, noted Zeitlin, Whaley, and co-authors in a July 2011 paper published by the journal of the National Academy of Science.
"To overcome this limitation in our biodefense preparedness, we have designed monoclonal antibodies which could be used in humans as immunoprotectants for [the Ebola virus]."
The research, paid for by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, caught the eye of the Science Daily, which predicted in December 2011:
"If early efforts bear fruit, an Ebola vaccine could be stockpiled for use in the United States, should the country fall victim to a natural outbreak or a bioterrorism event in which a weaponized strain of the virus were unleashed on soldiers or the public."
Zeitlin was trained at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, closely affiliated with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
Whaley and Zeitlin outlined the predominantly military nature of their operation in a March 2012 lawsuit Mapp Biopharmacuetical filed against Map Pharmaceuticals, an unrelated company, regarding the similarities of their names.
"Plaintiff's primary business is to apply for and obtain grants from government agencies such as the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health, to conduct research and develop biopharmaceuticals to combat infectious disease, prepare for outbreaks, and protect United States service men and women from biological warfare while serving our country abroad," Mapp's filing said.
Added the complaint, "Plaintiff does not currently sell biopharmaceutical products, nor does it have any plans to commercialize and sell biopharmaceutical products."
The matter was subsequently settled out of court.
Working for the Army can be lucrative, and the fresh Ebola breakout will likely increase business. In addition, the government has many other infectious agents of interest.
This past June, Mapp Biopharmaceutical received an $8,152,103 contract from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for development of "a broad-spectrum monoclonal cocktail for prevention of Venezuelan, Western and Eastern equine encephalitis viruses, in support of the research and development enterprise," according to Targeted News Service.
It is unclear who actually owns the anti-Ebola formula and controls its use, but given Mapp's heavy military funding, the U.S. government is believed to have a major say in how it is being employed. An Associated Press report on Monday morning, August 11, said the experimental drug had been given to Spain to treat a missionary priest, raising new questions.
"It was not exactly clear how Spain got the drug and authorities refused to comment about any possible costs involved," according to the story. "Geneva University Hospital told The Associated Press it was involved in getting the drug to Spain but would not elaborate.”