SPIEZ LABORATORY in the Swiss canton of Bern compiles fundamental information for nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) threats and hazards. It provides services for international organisations, for the authorities and for the general population in the fields of arms control, protective measures and incident management. In doing so, this civilian laboratory makes a scientific contribution to the security and safety of people and the environment.
Casha Frigo Schmidiger conducted the interview
Mr Bucher, SPIEZ LABORATORY is internationally renowned for its expertise on issues involving protection against NBC weapons. Would you categorise your work as more political or more scientific?
We are clearly scientifically oriented but our motto expresses our vision: "A world without weapons of mass destruction". To that extent, our efforts today focus on arms control issues. We have been working in this field on behalf of the UN and others for 25 years. In this respect, we are involved in politics and policy-making at least indirectly in that we provide support to Swiss diplomacy. We hold conferences on various arms control topics and prepare sets of documentation for the Swiss delegations to submit in international negotiations. The issue of "incapacitating chemical agents" that render the enemy incapable of combat is one example of a topic we are currently investigating scientifically.
Where do these agents come from? Who has them on their agenda?
Various countries. Incapacitating chemical agents are toxic substances with special effects, substances such as fentanyl derivative, which was used in the freeing of hostages in the Moscow theatre hostage crisis. The agent did incapacitate the captors but a number of hostages also died. The problem is that the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) allows the use of toxic substances for performing police tasks but fails to define exactly which operations apply.
Protection Against NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) Weapons
Which types of weapons are most dangerous, nuclear, biological or chemical weapons?
The threats vary greatly. Each of these weapon classes has a certain history of its own. It all began in World War I with gas attacks. In the Cold War the focus tended to be on the nuclear threat - and that focus has continued down to the present day. Biological weapons are the newest class. It is ultimately irrelevant for us whether a pathogen is spread by a terrorist or whether as a naturally spreading virus (pandemic). We are responsible for identifying the type of pathogen involved and are specially equipped to do so.
Is it true that you cultivate special pathogens in Spiez such as the Ebola virus?
Our job is to be able to identify the pathogens reliably and as quickly as possible. To this end, we have built a new secure biological laboratory (B-lab), which we were able to put into operation in 2013.
Pandemics are on the increase. What role does the SPIEZ LABORATORY play in this context?
Our experts step into the picture whenever someone suspects the presence of a previously unknown pathogen which fails to respond to antibiotics and antiviral drugs and whose dangerousness cannot be ascertained. We support the Swiss National Reference Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases.
Your research involves the production of your own chemical weapons and work with highly contagious pathogens such as Ebola and anthrax. To what extent can you justify these activities to the community in your immediate environment? Has there been or is there now public opposition to your work in the canton of Bern?
We have always had good relations with the public. SPIEZ LABORATORY has been in existence for more than 80 years. We have always worked with hazardous substances and have never had an incident.
It was always important for us to have a transparent information policy in connection with the construction of our new B-lab. We inform the public and the local authorities about our work at open days for instance. These efforts pay off in that they foster mutual understanding.
As regards hazards for the local population, we had to tell our supervisory authorities how large the infection radius would be if pathogenic viruses were to be released as the result of an incident (which is highly unlikely). We proved that the danger of infection ceased beyond a radius of 40 metres. In other words, if an accident of this kind were to occur despite all safety and security measures, we would have a problem only on our own premises.
Are we correct in assuming that you become involved when incidents occur at places like the mail distribution centre in Mülligen, where a large part of Swiss mail is sorted? In this case, there was suspicion of an anthrax attack and the employees had to be evacuated. What responsibilities do you have in cases like these?
A special regional laboratory network was set up to verify the presence of pathogens such as anthrax. In this particular incident, we were not called upon. A different laboratory is responsible for Mülligen.
However, we are the only laboratory in the whole of Switzerland that analyses pathogens at the highest risk level of 4. There are four levels of risk: Level 1 is baking yeast, for example, which is completely harmless. Level 2 covers pathogens such as salmonellae and influenza. Level 3 refers for example to anthrax pathogens, which can trigger deadly diseases but for which possible therapies exist. Level 4 pertains to special viral diseases like viral haemorrhagic fever, e.g. Marburg or Ebola. People's only hope is their own immune system, which often fails, however. Highly specialised laboratory equipment and correspondingly well-trained virologists are needed to identify these types of viruses.
With its research, SPIEZ LABORATORY makes an important contribution to prevention and damage control in the use of biological and chemical warfare agents. You enjoy a sterling reputation in Switzerland and internationally. What are the most important bodies and partner organisations with which you communicate in your daily work?
We work with partner laboratories around the globe. As I already mentioned, we work on behalf of the UN, primarily in the field of arms control. We made multiple trips to Iraq in this regard. In addition, we work for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Our activities there mainly involve clarifying potential pollution in areas in post-war periods. For example, we investigate after an armed conflict whether slightly radioactive, armour-piercing ammunition made of depleted uranium is causing pollution. We also do work for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
One of our key clients is the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW is charged with monitoring compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. We are one of the designated laboratories in this regard. This convention has been signed by nearly all important countries in the world with a few important exceptions (e.g. Syria). Each signatory country agrees, among other things, to have its own industrial plants inspected on a regular basis.
It is a great advantage for SPIEZ LABORATORY that we are so interdisciplinary. Our staff may be small, about 100, but it is highly specialised. In a crisis, we obtain personnel support from the NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical) Competence Centre of the Swiss Armed Forces. This backup is the only way to guarantee 24-hour operation for our laboratory for the duration of a disaster or emergency. I am referring here to the sudden swine flu epidemic that broke out amongst soldiers, for example. We were responsible for diagnosing the samples of all armed forces personnel in Switzerland. The military specialists gave us optimum support for these efforts. We are primarily a civilian laboratory with a clearly defined research task.
In Switzerland, we also assist the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), the Federal Department of Home Affairs (FDHA) with the Federal Office of Public Health and the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). And since 2011 we have also been the designated laboratory of the International Committee of the Red Cross for NBC-relevant issues.
Are you also involved in dealing with the rampant worldwide spread of diseases transmitted by animals? After all, the Asian tiger mosquito has already made its way to Ticino.
Yes, these cases entail what are called the new vectors. We are conducting a research project precisely in Ticino on this subject. Climate change results in the constant emergence of new transmission paths for diseases and the need to monitor them.
Like the CERN in Geneva, SPIEZ LABORATORY probably also gives flight to the fantasies of certain mentally unbalanced individuals to harm and attack people. What is done to make sure these individuals are reliably kept out of your sensitive facilities and research activities?
Our research facilities are effectively protected against outside forces. I cannot say any more than that. In general, I think external risks tend to be overrated and internal ones underrated. I would just mention the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 in this context. An employee of a government laboratory was apparently busy every weekend for months readying anthrax to serve as a weapon without his superiors knowing anything about these activities. The chance of a terrorist training as a scientist is much less likely than a scientist turning into a terrorist.
The research findings are probably just as sensitive as the physical facilities and resources. At the same time, it is vital for your work to share information and views with other scientists. How do you ensure this communication in general, technically and organisationally? Could you state your position on this?
We encounter secrecy issues in our daily work and have to be able to deal with them. However, we have a high degree of transparency by international comparison. We want to show others what we are doing. Of course there are activities we do not publicise. However, anyone who wants to can go on the Internet and find the recipes for producing chemical warfare agents. Consistent confidentiality would be useful only to a limited extent. A better approach is to focus on consistent education and information about potential hazards. So, we stage a variety of awareness raising programmes amongst chemistry and biology students.