Research institutes unveil plans for Fort Detrick lab expansion

High-security facilities to help devise better defenses against bioterror

October 16, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Two of the nation's top military and civilian medical research institutes unveiled plans yesterday to work together on a huge expansion of high-security laboratories at Fort Detrick to devise better defenses against bioterrorism and emerging diseases.

The first stage will be construction, beginning in 2004, of a $105 million laboratory equipped to handle the deadliest organisms in existence, including the Ebola virus.

The so-called Biosafety Level 4 lab will be operated by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, whose main campus is at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday on the boom in biodefense research incorrectly reported that the University of California at Davis has received funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease for a Biosafety Level 4 lab. In fact, the university is seeking such funding but it has not been approved. The Sun regrets the error.

After the NIAID lab is built, officials plan to seek roughly $1 billion to build new laboratories for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the top military biodefense center.

No money has been appropriated for the reconstruction of USAMRIID, but officials say it is necessary to replace aging, overcrowded labs.

Scientific `brain trust'

At a briefing yesterday, leaders of the two institutes said the expansion will create a "brain trust" of civilian and military scientists to develop new vaccines and drugs.

They said building a second Biosafety Level 4 lab at Fort Detrick - where the Army already has one of a handful of such facilities in the country - will increase efficiency because the labs can share security and other support services.

"We're in the middle of a war," said Maj. Gen. Lester Martinez-Lopez, commander of the Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command. "We want to build the best biotechnology center in the country."

Dr. John La Montagne, deputy director of the NIAID, said, "The assets of both institutions can really come together in a unique and creative way to come up with answers to these problems."

The plans at Fort Detrick are only a small part of an unprecedented national building boom in bioterrorism research, set off by the Bush administration's decision to quadruple biodefense funding to nearly $6 billion a year.

The expansion was prompted by the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and shut down federal buildings last year.

In addition to the Fort Detrick plans, a consortium including the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins University plans to compete for NIAID funding to become a "Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense." The same scientists might also seek funding for a Biosafety Level 4 research facility, according to sources familiar with the idea.

Larry Roberts, a spokesman for the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, confirmed that the university's respected Center for Vaccine Development is part of the consortium. But he said officials do not want to comment yet.

"Because of the competitive situation, we can't talk about it," Roberts said.

While noting that the government's request for proposals on new Biosafety Level 4 labs came out just last week, Roberts said the Center for Vaccine Development is "going to be looking carefully at any application opportunity."

Lab at proving ground

Also in Maryland, the Army created a new Biosafety Level 3 lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground last year to study bioterror agents. While previous work with anthrax at the proving ground used harmless decontaminated bacteria, the new facility maintains stocks of 19 strains of live, virulent anthrax, according to a spokesman for the Army's Soldier Biological and Chemical Command.

Some scientists and arms control advocates have denounced the rush to create new biodefense labs, saying the boom could actually increase the danger of attacks by domestic bioterrorists who might acquire expertise or organisms from the new labs.

They note that FBI investigators apparently believe the anthrax attacks were most likely carried out by an American with ties to the existing U.S. biodefense program. Fort Detrick is the main repository of the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks, though it has been used in at least two dozen other labs.

In a recent article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Eileen Choffnes of the National Academy of Sciences warned that the biodefense expansion could backfire.

"These laboratories might become a pathogen-modification training academy or biowarfare agent `superstore,'" wrote Choffnes, who has studied bioterrorism for 13 years.

"It seems to me to be too much, too fast," said Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, an advocacy group in Austin, Texas, that seeks stronger controls on biowarfare. "We're proliferating the knowledge and the means to create biological weapons."

Hammond notes that new or expanded Biosafety Level 3 or 4 labs using dangerous biological agents are planned not only by the Army and NIH but also by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and numerous universities. By his count, at least 14 such projects are planned.

NIAID alone, he notes, is financing new Biosafety Level 4 facilities at Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana, the University of California at Davis, and an undetermined number of the planned "Centers of Excellence for Biodefense."

But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of NIAID, said the rapid expansion is critical if the country is to be defended against terrorism.

"Biodefense research involves very small amounts of [dangerous] material," Fauci said. "We're trying to do research to protect the population, not to make weapons."

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