Med school vies to build federal lab

UM would lead research at high-security site on Aberdeen Proving Ground

Bioterrorism focus of study

Facility would be a hub for work on deadly germs, treating victims of attack

February 08, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland School of Medicine is competing for federal money to build a $200 million high-security laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground to conduct bioterrorism research and treat victims of any future attack, officials said yesterday.

The proposed National Biocontainment Laboratory would be one of a handful of Biosafety Level 4 facilities in the country, equipped to work on the deadliest organisms on earth, including the Ebola and smallpox viruses. The 150,000-square-foot building would be located on a well-guarded 10-acre site at the Edgewood Area of the proving ground.

Dr. Howard B. Dickler, associate dean for research at the medical school, said the laboratory is needed to protect the country against biological attack.

"Obviously, after Sept. 11 and anthrax, everybody became aware that bioterrorism is a real threat," Dickler said. "We're vulnerable and we don't have the tools to protect ourselves."

The lab would develop new methods to identify organisms, new treatments and new vaccines, working closely with the university's Center for Vaccine Development, Dickler said. It would focus not only on germs likely to be used by terrorists but on emerging diseases such as West Nile virus, he said.

The facility would also treat victims of any attack involving exotic germs requiring high-level protection for doctors and nurses, he said.

The lab's program director would be Abdu F. Azad, a professor of microbiology and immunology who has studied malaria and other diseases.

Azad and other medical school officials were rushing yesterday to complete the application by Monday, the deadline for submitting it to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

NIAID would provide $150 million for construction and the university would provide another $50 million, Dickler said. The estimated operating cost of $25 million a year would come from NIAID, he said.

Maryland's application is likely to face strong competition. Researchers at the University of California at Davis, the University of Texas at Galveston, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Boston University and the New York State Department of Health all have expressed interest in building such labs.

One or possibly two successful applicants will be selected by NIAID in September. At least two labs are expected to be built, Dickler said.

The Maryland proposal may be hurt by the presence in the state of two other Biosafety Level 4 labs: one at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, and another to be built by NIAID at Fort Detrick starting next year. Dickler said neither of those labs will be available for university researchers.

The University of Maryland project may face opposition from some Harford County neighbors of Aberdeen Proving Ground who think the hazards created by past Army operations are bad enough.

The Edgewood Area, once the home of U.S. Army chemical weapons research, has today a legacy of that work, including 1,623 tons of mustard agent, an undetermined amount of unexploded ordnance and a host of other contaminants.

In some communities adjoining the base, roadside signs display an emergency radio frequency and explain a 15-siren warning system for accidental chemical releases. Some schools are equipped with air-pressure systems to shield students from outside contamination.

Glenda Bowling, president of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, said she was dismayed by the lab proposal.

"It's going to be a big community concern," she said. "We have enough chemical and biological contamination out there. How long have we been trying to get them to clean up? Ten years?"

Bowling said that in 1999, when the base sought to put a Level 3 biological lab on post, Army officials assured the community that APG would not be interested in a Level 4 lab.

Asked about that assurance, Dickler said: "A lot of priorities have changed since Sept. 11 [2001]." He said dangerous germs would be protected by locks requiring two people to open them, and multiple safeguards would prevent leaks.

Dickler said Edgewood makes an ideal site because it is already one of the most heavily guarded military bases in the country and has easy access to Interstate 95 for visiting scientists and a helipad for transporting patients in an emergency.

Sun staff writer Lane Harvey Brown contributed to this article.

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