BioWorld International Correspondent

The biotechnology industry is in denial about the threat presented by animal rights activists, and until the issue is confronted it will not go away - or so says Philip Celestini, special agent in charge of FBI operations against animal and ecological extremists.

The FBI has identified animal rights extremism as the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat, calling it "a very serious problem" caused by "people who have dedicated their lives to the cessation of all animal research," Celestini said.

To date, most activists have focused on attempts to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences plc by targeting not only the company itself, but also suppliers and customers. The Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences (SHAC) UK website goes so far as to list taxi firms and building contractors as legitimate targets.

SHAC's activities have forced the company to delist from the London Stock Exchange and move its headquarters to New Jersey, although it still relies on the UK government to provide banking facilities.

But Celestini warned that "even if HLS were to shut down tomorrow, the problem wouldn't go away; there would be a shifting of the campaign."

Celestini outlined the extent of the threat at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2004 conference held in San Francisco earlier this month. He warned that all companies at the meeting were potential targets and appealed to delegates to face up to the issue. As perhaps a sign that the industry is in a state of denial, the session "Animal Extremism - a growing threat to biotechnology" was held in the last time slot, on the last day of the meeting, and buried in the Food and Agriculture stream.

At the end of the presentation, one shaken executive - who did not want to give his name or that of his company - acknowledged that animal extremism "is not on my company's radar screen at all."

But it's on Chiron's radar. Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., officially became a target on SHAC's website in May 2003. That was followed by harassment and intimidation of 30 Chiron employees, both senior and junior, around the world.

Linda Short, Chiron's vice president of corporate resources, said employees were targeted at their homes and even their children were followed. "It went everywhere from ridiculous to truly threatening," she said.

Most dangerous were the bombs. Two exploded and a third was defused at Chiron in the early hours of Aug. 28, 2003. Although Chiron's staff works 24 hours a day, no one was hurt.

Short said, "We didn't lose any staff [as a result of the campaign], but we do wonder how it is affecting our ability to do business."

Chiron has no current contracts with HLS, and Short said senior executives had debated whether to comply with SHAC's demand never to do business with HLS in the future.

"We decided not to write the letter to SHAC," she said, adding that if HLS is successfully driven out of business, extremists will "drive the next contract research company out of business, and then turn on company research." But since Chiron needs animal research to survive, "we decided to stick with it," she said.

Apart from increasing security at its sites and at the homes of staff, Chiron has implemented a communications campaign to inform employees of potential risks and to share intelligence, letting staff know why Chiron does animal research and why it has taken a stand. It also has provided counseling.

Also, although Chiron had a business continuity plan, until the bombings it had never rehearsed it. Now the plan is reviewed quarterly.

The company also has taken legal steps and has filed complaints in New Jersey, Washington State and California. It also has given evidence to Senate hearings investigating the need for stronger legislation to curb activists.

Although Chiron also took measures to communicate with the public about its research needs, Mary Hanley, executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research said the general population is not concerned about extremist activity and said public support for research with animals is eroding.

The FBI indicted seven suspected activists on May 31. Hanley applauded that progress, but said it will not be an adequate deterrent. "[Extremists] are here to stay, and the consequences of a run-in with them can be very serious," she said.

Like the biotechnology industry, Celestini acknowledged that the FBI was slow in its initial response, but now 35 field offices across the U.S. deal with extremists. The agency is hampered both because the law against extremists is not strong enough, and because the extremists are well versed in existing statutes and know what they can get away with.

On top of that, there is little consistency from state to state in the way police forces respond.

"It is often dismissed as kids throwing bricks or tipping over cars," Celestini said.