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Těchonín: indispensable capability or mere exercise of self-indulgence from the Czech Defense?

Published : 27 February 2013
928 words in that article

Despite the Czech government decision from 7th February 2013 to stop the activity of Těchonín’s Bio-Defense Center, the defense Ministry is still striving to convince Ministries of Health and Interior to co-finance this unique facility in Central Europe.

That’s why they organized on 26th February a new visit of this Center, located in the Orlické Mountains not far from the Polish border, for representatives from those above-mentioned ministries. It was conducted by the 1st Deputy Defense Minister Vlastimil Picek himself.

The paradox of this question is residing in a very simple equation: the Czech Republic built at the beginning of the years 2000 a hospital and laboratories type BSL 3 and 4 (Biosafety Level), which are capable to handle safely the most dangerous viruses on the planet, for a comprehensive amount of 1.75 Billion Czech crowns (around 70M€) and nowadays they are ready to throw this away because the Ministry of Defense is no longer able to pay around 100 million CZK (4M€) every year to keep it working.

A new facility on an older site

The Bio Defense Center was not built in Těchonín by case. A top secret experimental microbiology laboratory already existed on that site from 1971 to 1990 in order to satisfy the needs of the Czechoslovak and the Warsaw Pact Armed Forces in terms of biological defense.

After the terrorist attacks with anthrax that followed the destruction of the New York World Trade Center on 11th November 2001, the Czech government felt necessary to give a concrete answer to this new threat and decided to build a Bio Defense Center.

The choice of Těchonín a construction site was quick because of its past and its geographical location. Reasonably close to the big urban centers (Prague, Brno, Hradec Kralové, Ostrava…) the place was isolated enough to limit the risks of expansion in case of biological incident. Moreover, the past activity in microbiology research allowed a cheaper renovation of the buildings compared with a construction from scratch.

A global capability against biological agents

Even if a limited capability of medical treatment was already ensured from November 2001 in Těchonín, the overall reconstruction of the site lasted several years. They started in 2007 a two-year testing period and the Center was declared fully operational in March 2009.

Except the command staff, the Center is composed of five departments that are complementary and employs around 50 people:

  • The “Detection-Diagnostic” Department,
  • The “Research and Verification” Department,
  • The “Quarantine and Transport” Department,
  • The “Hospitalization and Isolation” Department,
  • The Central Services Department.

Those installations allow caring about thirty infectious patients (8 beds in Intensive care and 20 standard beds) without risk for the medical teams. There is also a quarantine capability which is incidentally the only operational use of this site: all the Czech soldiers coming back from operations, including Afghanistan, have to stay for a while in Těchonín in order to check whether they don’t carry any dangerous virus.

So what is Těchonín: an expensive and useless toy or a trump of the Czech Defense?

This quarantine activity can appear as a too low activity to the eyes of the civil servants paid to hunt useless expenditures in a period marked by the economic crisis.

Slashed to the bone, the Czech Defense budget is no longer capable to finance all the capabilities of its Armed Forces and the authorities have to choose.

That’s why they decided to stop the activity of the Bio Defense Center if no other Ministry will participate to its financing. There is another alternative but even more hypothetical that closing the facility: obliging the Center to cover 50% of its budget – 50 million crowns (2M€) – thanks to its research work for private clients. This kind of activity cannot be improvised and there is quite little support from the governmental authorities.

Effectively, some Czech decisions are sometimes difficult to understand and trigger questions that have currently no answer:

  • Why the decision to stop the activity of the Bio Defense Center has been taken by the government in a period of time when there is no sitting Defense Minister?
  • Why the Czech Republic, who has one of the rare BSL 4 laboratory in Europe, is not part of the European initiative ERINHA (European Research Infrastructure on Highly Pathogenic Agents) financed by the 7th Research Framework Program which goal is to reinforce the European capabilities in biological research? Slovakia, that does not have the Czech capabilities is that field of competence is part of ERINHA.
  • Why the Czech Republic, who is declaring a particular interest in the NRBC domain, is not more active at regional level (Visegrad Group for example) in order to mutualize this capability?

In that period, every country is striving to cut its expenditures and to save money. However throwing away a two-billion crowns protective tool that answers one of the main threats of this beginning of 21st Century – everybody has in mind the Avian and Swine flu – looks like the height of a bad idea.

The argument of a tool that is not used looks also a little bit pitiful, otherwise many other capabilities that have not been used for years should disappear as well (tanks, heavy artillery…).

The Armed Forces of democracies are – by essence – weapons that should not be used. They are the ultimate insurance of the State. Unfortunately our European countries forget more and more to pay their insurance fees. Let’s hope that a calamity – either biological or of any kind – will not harshly remind them in what extend an insurance is useful!!!

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