The rise of the Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group, has refocussed attention on East Africa as a frontier in U.S. security interests.
The laboratories of Uganda's Ministry of Agriculture, Animals, Industry and Fisheries sit on the top of a quiet hill on a turn-off 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 November 10 for the first stop on a three-country tour of East Africa to assess the next generation of U.S. 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.
Focus on East Africa
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.
“We need to tighten the security of vulnerable public health laboratories in East Africa,” said Andrew C. Weber, assistant to the secretary of defence for nuclear and chemical and biological defence programmes. “Preventing terrorist acquisition of dangerous pathogens, the seed material for biological weapons, is a security imperative.”
The rise of the Shabab, the 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 refocussed attention on East Africa as a frontier in U.S. security interests.
In 2004, Congress expanded the mandate of the Nunn-Lugar programme, which originally focused on dismantling warheads in former Soviet states, to include geographic regions like this one. Now, Lugar's trip will take the delegation to Uganda, Burundi and then Kenya.
Uganda, a long-time U.S. military ally, 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 people.
Lax security, poor conditions
This is the stuff of “Hot Zone” and “Outbreak” novels that have dramatised the dangers of viral outbreaks. But the underlying threat, U.S. 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 country's push to create new federal districts, part of what the government calls an effort to decentralise 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 don't 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 more than 200 technical staff members, but now there are only six. In the anthrax laboratory, one doctor showed how to use a cell phone 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,” Lugar said.
At the Uganda Virus Research Institute, there are state-of-the-art facilities run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. 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 influenza.
“This is the end-state,” said Lt. Col. Jay Hall, from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), pointing out the disease control agency laboratories upstairs. “This is where we want to get all other labs.”— © New York Times News Service