EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in our ‘Gain-of-Function Hall of Shame’ series profiling key players in gain-of-function research.
Any scientific lab work that involves making pathogens more lethal, contagious, infectious, or resistant to disease—even when done, ostensibly, for defensive purposes or medical countermeasures development—is really too risky to do at all.
Especially when you consider that 30 years’ worth of gain-of-function research has produced no vaccine, and no cure for a pandemic.
But perhaps an even better reason to stop experiments that could be used to create biological weapons, or the next pandemic, is the large number of high-profile—some accidental, some nefarious—releases of deadly pathogens from U.S. labs.
One U.S. government scientist who’s been linked, at least indirectly, with at least one gain-of-function research lab failure is Dr. Christian Hassell.
Yet despite his questionable track record on safety, Hassell still holds the power to secretly exert major control over the so-called “biodefense” industry—by deciding which research gets approved and which corporations receive government contracts.
Hassell, who has a Ph.D in analytical chemistry, is one of the nation’s top experts on biological weapons research. He got his start at DuPont as a Senior Research Chemist (1991-2000). It was his work there, which included developing automated analysis methods for fermentation processes, that “got him interested in the detection of warfare agents.”
After nine years at DuPont, Hassell joined the technical staff of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (2000-2005). While at Los Alamos, he served as an intelligence analyst with the Department of Energy Field Intelligence Element. In that capacity, he was assigned to the Iraq Survey Group in Baghdad, an international team organized by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They found none.
Beginning in 2001, Hassell’s career took a more controversial turn. It started with his role in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's botched Amerithrax investigation (2001-2008).
Controversy continues to follow him. Today, in his current role in the Trump administration, Hassell has been accused by a whistleblower of surreptitiously seeking $100 million in government funding for DOD projects on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats in labs that he admitted were "in trouble for shady dealings, illegal accounting and lack of accountability.”
Let’s start with the anthrax investigation, which the FBI also refers to “Amerithrax.”
Amerithrax: When U.S. biological weapons were used on U.S. citizens
The 2001 Amerithrax attack is arguably the most famous and politically consequential biological weapons attack in U.S. history.
Letters laced with anthrax, dated September 11, 2001, were sent through the U.S. mail to journalists and news outlets, and to two U.S. Senators, both Democrats—Jim Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)
In all, 22 people, including 12 mail handlers, were sickened by the attacks. Five people died.
It was an act of domestic terrorism—and an inside job.
Someone with access to weaponized anthrax, created in a U.S. military lab, used the anthrax to attack U.S. citizens, including Leahy and Daschle—both of whom had publicly raised objections to the proposed Bush-Cheney Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The crime remains unsolved. But the biological weapon used in the attacks matched the so-called Ames anthrax used by U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the U.S, Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland, defense contractor Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, and between 20 - 50 other U.S. labs involved in anthrax research.
It should have been relatively easy to find domestic terrorists operating from within this group of U.S. military and defense contractor labs. Yet the FBI ended its investigation without solving the case.
By all accounts, the FBI botched the Amerithrax investigation. We know this now, thanks to a whistleblower complaint, filed confidentially in the midst of the investigation, by Richard L. Lambert.
In 2006, Lambert, who spent 24 years at the FBI—four of them running the anthrax investigation—filed a formal complaint with the FBI’s deputy director. As he told the New York Times in 2015, in his complaint he informed his superiors that:
“ . . . the effort was understaffed and plagued by turnover, and that 12 of 20 agents assigned to the case had no prior investigative experience. Senior bureau microbiologists were not made available, and two Ph.D. microbiologists who were put on the case were then removed for an 18-month Arabic language program in Israel. Fear of leaks led top officials to order the extreme compartmentalization of information, with investigators often unable to compare notes and share findings with colleagues.”
Lambert said the bureau kept secret “a staggering amount of exculpatory evidence” regarding their chief suspect, Dr. Bruce Ivins, a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases researcher.
After Ivins committed suicide, in 2008, the FBI closed its case. An investigation into the investigation followed. Some involved in the case maintain that Ivins was framed, and that he was innocent.
Perpetuating the ‘lone scientist’ theory
Where does Hassell fit into the Amerithrax saga?
As the FBI’s new laboratory director, Hassell had the rather ignominious, albeit strategic job of defending the bureau’s handling of the Amerithrax investigation.
But Hassell wasn’t completely forthcoming in response to the National Academies of Sciences’ requests for information.
Still, if Hassell was attempting a cover-up, he didn’t succeed.
As Edward Jay Epstein wrote in his book, “The Annals of Unsolved Crime”:
“The National Academies of Sciences report concluded that the FBI’s key assertion that its genetic fingerprinting showed that the killer anthrax could only have come from the flask in Ivins’ custody was flawed. ‘The scientific data alone do not support the strength of the government’s repeated assertions that RMR-1029 was conclusively identified as the parent material to the anthrax powder used in the mailings,’ it stated. ‘It is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the B. anthracis in the mailings based on the available scientific evidence alone.’”
Was the 2001 Amerithrax attack an inside job? Or was it an attempt by rogue elements in the military and the Bush-Cheney Administration to create panic in the Congress, media and the general public? So the administration could ram through the Patriot Act with little or no opposition?
We’ll likely never know exactly “whodunnit.”
But we do know that Amerithrax happened because the U.S. military engaged in biological weapons proliferation.
We also know that if the military’s anthrax hadn’t been used in the 2001 attacks, most people would never have known that anthrax was being weaponized by the military in U.S. labs.
Once the news did get out, labs like the ones at Dugway Proving Ground, Battelle Memorial Institute and Fort Detrick, should have been shut down. Instead Amerithrax was used to justify the expansion and proliferation of such labs and their work, under the guise of finding a cure—for an outbreak that wouldn’t have occurred in the first place, if “biodefense” labs hadn’t weaponized anthrax.
Scientists like Hassell who tried to hide the truth should have been fired and prosecuted. Instead, Hassell rose through the ranks. To this day, he perpetuates the myth that the Amerithrax attack was carried out by a lone mad scientist, Bruce Ivins.
In recent years, Hassell has talked about the events of 2001 as if the anthrax attacks were perpetrated by foreign agents instead of American government personnel—as if the biological weapon used in the attack had been manufactured abroad rather than on domestic U.S. military bases.
After wrapping up the FBI’s Amerithrax cover-up, Hassell became Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense. At the opening of a biodefense facility in Florida, in 2016, Hassell stuck to his lone scientist story:
“The purpose and the capability of this facility is really fundamentally to avoid a surprise and be better prepared. Sixty years after Pearl Harbor we were surprised again with the anthrax mailings and other events of 9/11, so this whole issue of surprise is a common area of discussion, what can we do to avoid surprise, to defend it, to respond to it more effectively and to that end this facility is very important to our capability to do that.”
Hassell’s big lie is that we can somehow protect ourselves against biological weapons by manufacturing biological weapons.
After Amerithrax, the recklessness goes on
Hassell’s big lie is especially nefarious, given what he knows about the accidental laboratory releases of anthrax and other potential bioweapons that have occurred since Amerithrax—and under his watch.
Since Amerithrax, it’s been one incident after another at U.S. biological weapons labs.
In 2014, just as news was emerging about security breaches and accidental releases at U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labs involving anthrax, Hassell started his job at the DOD as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Chemical and Biological Programs.
By 2015, Hassell found himself testifying before Congress after the CDC found that a U.S. Army lab at Dugway Proving Ground had shipped live anthrax “over a 12-year period to 194 laboratories in 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and nine foreign countries.”
In all, the CDC tracked 575 shipments of presumed inactivated anthrax material—which turned out to include live anthrax.
At a Congressional hearing, Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), now retired but then-chair of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations said:
“As Yogi Bera said, ‘It’s like déjà vu all over again.’ Last year we held a similar hearing on a CDC anthrax incident that potentially exposed dozens of CDC researchers to live anthrax due to the fact that established safety procedures were not followed. During the hearing CDC Director Frieden testified, ‘We will take every step possible to prevent any future incident that could put our laboratory scientists and public at risk.’ Yet here we are again today. We also examined the CDC’s mistaken shipment of highly pathogenic avian flu and the FDA’s discovery of vials of smallpox in the NIH building. Months after our hearing, and after the White House ordered a safety stand down and laboratory sweep of all federal labs, the CDC revealed there had been a transfer of ebola from a CDC 4 lab to a CDC 2 lab. Despite the growing number of red flags, these incidents keep happening . . .
“As I said at last year’s hearing, this is completely unacceptable. These dangerous safety lapses at our high-containment labs are threatening our nation’s security and public health . . .
“As I said a year ago what we have here is a pattern of recurring issues of complacency and a lax culture of safety. Last year, CDC Director Frieden stated that this was a wake-up call. However, it appears that critical government agencies have hit the snooze button once again. What’s it going to take to change things this time? And when? None of us want to be here again a year from now discussing another set of safety lapses and—heaven forbid—a loss of life.”
Murphy offered a solution: the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on oversight of high-containment labs, including the creation of national standards for designing, constructing, commissioning and maintaining such labs.
To date, the GAO’s recommendations have been ignored.
In February 2020, the GAO released the latest in a long string of reports arguing for change, which states:
“We—along with congressional committees—have, for many years, identified challenges and areas for improvement related to the safety, security and oversight of high-containment laboratories. For example, in response to reported lapses in laboratory safety at HHS and DOD in 2014 and 2015, we examined how federal departments oversee their high-containment laboratories and found that most of the 8 departments and 15 agencies that we reviewed had policies that were not comprehensive or were not up to date. Additionally, we found that while the departments and agencies we reviewed primarily used inspections to oversee their high-containment laboratories, some of them were not routinely reporting inspection results, laboratory incidents, and other oversight activities to senior officials.
"In October 2017, we found that the Federal Select Agent Program—jointly managed by HHS and USDA—oversees laboratories’ handling of certain hazardous pathogens known as select agents and toxins, but the program does not fully meet all key elements of effective oversight. For example, the Federal Select Agent Program was not independent from all laboratories it oversees, and it had not assessed risks posed by its current structure or the effectiveness of its mechanisms to reduce organizational conflicts of interest. In June 2019, we said the National Biodefense Strategy highlights the need for continuous improvement of biosafety and biosecurity for laboratories and other facilities, creating an opportunity for interagency partners to develop additional oversight or other practices to mitigate the risk of bio incidents at high-containment laboratories.”
Lack of oversight? Who, me?
Hassell shares the blame for the lack of oversight exposed by the GAO report. Yet after he testified, instead of taking action to implement the GAO recommendations as Murphy urged, he found a scapegoat.
Hassell saw to it that Brig. Gen. William King, who had commanded the Dugway lab as a colonel for only two years, from July 2009 to July 2011, was reprimanded “for failing to take appropriate action to respond to and mitigate lapses in safety and protocol.”
Hassell then directed the transfer of the command of operations at Dugway to the Edgewood Biological Center at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Ironically, this is where King was working, at the time of his reprimand, as commander of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive (CBRNE) Command. The reprimand didn’t prevent King from continuing to serve in that role. Instead, it appears that King’s punishment for his oversight failures at Dugway was to clean them up at Aberdeen.
A year after his “reprimand,” King celebrated the construction of a new headquarters for CBRNE. He told the Baltimore Sun at the time that CBRNE developed out of "lessons learned" during the beginning of the Iraq War, when U.S. officials suspected Saddam Hussein had chemical or biological weapons that could be used by terrorists to attack America.
Never mind that the real lesson learned, confirmed by the Iraq Survey Group, was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction—and that our bloody, costly war and occupation of Iraq, which continues through the present, was based upon lies and fabricated evidence.
King’s “reprimand” may not have been harsh. But he did get called out by DufflelBlog.com, a satire site similar to The Onion. In an article titled, “Retiring general starts mail-order Anthrax delivery service,” the author wrote:
“King plans to expand the business once the Anthrax portion is firmly established.
‘Eventually I want to deliver all manner of biological weapons,’ King explained. ‘Tularemia, botulism, Ebola, Marburg Variant U, smallpox, even more esoteric and untraceable stuff like weapons based on peptides and interferon. Stuff the human body produces naturally so it’s literally impossible to tell if they were hit with one of my weapons or just had a heart attack. It’s really going to revolutionize the biological weaponry market.
“‘The only thing I still have to work on is a good, reliable tracking system,’ he added. ‘So we don’t lose anything.’”
The truth isn’t too far from what DuffleBlog writes. But instead of selling anthrax to terrorists, now that King is retired from the military, he sells “biodefense” products on behalf of the private sector to the government—in his role as chairman of the board at the trade association CBRNE Industry Group.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense responsible for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program from 2014-2019, one of Hassell’s roles was to communicate funding opportunities to private sector industry trade groups like King’s CBRNE Industry Group.
Here’s a video of Hassell speaking at the 2017 Chemical and Biological Defense Science & Technology Conference. This was a conference that “brought 1400 scientists, program managers and leaders together from across the globe to confront chemical and biological defense challenges to make the world safer.”
The conference tagline? “Today’s Innovations, Tomorrow’s Warfighter Capabilities.”
Here’s what Hassell told fellow conference-goers:
“I’m here to talk about the Secretary of Defense’s priorities. … His first priority is lethality. … Lethality is a little awkward for us, because our program, by and large, is for force protection, and just for the record we do not have an offensive biological and chemical program, period. But the way I interpret that and the way we are positioning that whole idea is that the thing that differentiates the DOD mission in chem-bio in some respects from say the DHS or HHS mission is that it’s not just enough to protect our force, to survive, but it’s to protect them to fulfill their mission. They just can’t wear a suit and hunker down and hope that the threat passes. They’ve got to be able to move out.”
The official position of the DOD is that, while biological weapons were outlawed long ago, we have to assume that other countries that joined us in ratifying the BWC are going to be producing them anyway and/or that a “terrorist” could make or obtain them.
Using that logic, the DOD maintains that we should prepare all 2.2 million active troops and reservists for biological warfare.
Risky research, funded by taxpayers—and shrouded in secrecy
As we reported (“COVID-19—Reckless ‘Gain-of-Function’ Experiments Lie at the Root of the Pandemic,” July 23, 2020), Trump faced a public relations nightmare when news broke that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—which Trump had fingered as the source of what he called China’s “kung flu”—was being paid by his administration through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Trump subsequently made a big show of cutting funding for EcoHealth Alliance, an NIH grantee that had subcontracted with the Wuhan lab.
What Trump didn’t do was take any action regarding the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care & Oversight Review Committee (P3CO), a secret committee that continues to direct NIH funding to controversial gain-of-function research, the type used to make biological weapons.
As we write this today, the WIV could well be receiving money from the NIH through the secret P3CO committee.
But we wouldn’t know. Because P3CO’s committee members, its reviews and its decisions are all secret.
It’s possible Trump knows nothing about this, but his deputies, including Christian Hassell and Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Service, do know. (Kadlec deserves his own profile in the Gain-of-Function Hall of Shame. Stay tuned).
Unlike the military’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program, which is opaque and doesn’t put the dodgy labs it funds (the ones that Hassell said were "in trouble for shady dealings, illegal accounting, and lack of accountability" even as he worked to get them more money) through a public process, the NIH is supposedly vetting gain-of-function research under the 2017 “Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens.”
In practice, the process is secret. Nothing was known about how the Framework was being implemented until 2019, when news of the first approved studies was leaked to Science Magazine.
This was disturbing to scientists Marc Lipsitch and Tom Inglesby, both of whom had advocated for the Framework, especially as the Framework was imposed as a condition on ending a temporary moratorium on gain-of-function research.
In their Washington Post opinion piece, “The U.S. Is Funding Dangerous Experiments It Doesn’t Want You to Know About,” Lipsitch and Inglesby wrote:
“This secrecy means we don’t know how these requirements were applied, if at all, to the experiments now funded by the government. A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services told Science magazine that the agency cannot make the reviews public because doing so might reveal proprietary information about the applicants’ plans that could help their competitors. This bureaucratic logic implies that it is more important to maintain the trade secrets of a few prominent scientists than to let citizens—who bear the risk if an accident happens and who fund their work—scrutinize the decisions of public officials about whether these studies are worth the risk.”
The Department of Health and Human Services “spokesperson” referred to by Lipsitch and Ingleby is Hassell.
The risk Lipsitch and Ingleby accused Hassell of ignoring—“creating potentially pandemic pathogens creates a risk—albeit a small one—of infecting millions of people with a highly dangerous virus”—became all the more glaring once the SARS-COV-2 was circling the globe.
For damage control, in January 2020, Hassell convened a meeting of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, ostensibly to address demands Lipsitch and Inglesby were making for more transparency PC30 committee.
Very little was learned about the P3CO committee at this meeting, other than that Kadlec appointed Hassell chair and that, in addition to Kadlec, the committee reports to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Trump's science advisor. Hassell also gave credit for the P3CO to Patricia Delarosa.
Patricia Delarosa is the Supervisory Microbiologist at the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), the state-of-the-art high-containment lab intended to replace the Cold War-era Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Plum Island is the lab infamous for creating Lyme Disease. NBAF is being constructed on the Kansas State University campus right next to the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI).
BRI is the designated facility at Kansas State for work on organisms classified by the U.S. government as Select Agents. These are agents that have the potential to be weaponized. They require specialized facilities and highly trained personnel to ensure constant safety and security.
Kadlec and Hassell are each running projects at BRI.
Hassell’s project, “Priority Zoonotic Animal Drugs,“ has allowed Kansas State scientists to jump-start research on pathogens designated to be worked on at NBAF.
Hassell’s research “ . . . has included the zoonotic diseases Rift Valley fever (RVF) and Japanese encephalitis (JE), as well as the non-zoonotic diseases African swine fever (ASF) and classical swine fever (CSF). To date, there have been 75 research publications on this NBAF-related work, including 27 on RVF and 8 on JE since 2013.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which is funding the construction of the NBAF, estimated a 70-percent chance that within the lab’s 50-year lifespan an accidental release from the lab could cause a disaster with an economic impact of $9-50 billion.
As Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson recently reported in Independent Science News, when a National Research Council committee inspected these DHS estimates they concluded “the risks and costs could well be significantly higher than that.”
Worth the risk? We don’t think so. Please sign our petition demanding a global ban on gain-of-function research.
Alexis Baden-Mayer is OCA’s political director. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.
Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International, and the author of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal.”