U.S. biodefense campus set for Fort Detrick

3 agencies gain `synergy,' security

critics see waste

February 11, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Three federal agencies plan to build adjoining high-security laboratories at Fort Detrick for a total cost of more than $1 billion, creating a "national biodefense campus" where scientists will collaborate in the battle against bioterrorism.

The plan would create three new labs in Frederick operated by the Army, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health - and possibly a fourth lab for the U.S. Department of Agriculture - all equipped to handle the most dangerous pathogens in existence.

Federal officials have been meeting quietly for more than a year to plan the biodefense campus, part of a national boom in bioterrorism research in the wake of the Sept. 11 aircraft hijackings and the anthrax attacks of 2001.

The federal biodefense research budget has ballooned from $305 million in 2001 to nearly $4 billion this year, by one official's estimate.

Some public health experts call the proliferation of high-security labs wasteful and say they steal funding from problems more serious than bioterrorism. But federal officials insist all the new labs planned for the biodefense campus are necessary.

"It's a national asset being put together in an area where there's currently a strategic shortfall," said Army Col. John E. Ball, garrison commander at Fort Detrick, who is coordinating construction of the campus.

Building multiple labs within walking distance will not create redundancy but might save money, Ball said: "Because you can share, you can spend less on security, roads, parking, cafeteria, library and other things."

"We'll get a lot of synergy from being on the same campus," said Maureen I. McCarthy, director of research and development for the Department of Homeland Security. "The science may be similar. But we're three different agencies with different mission requirements."

The biodefense campus is an economic prize for Frederick County, bringing lucrative construction contracts and the promise of hundreds of highly paid jobs for scientists and support staff.

And, because Fort Detrick has handled dangerous germs since World War II, most neighbors are not worried about possible expansion, said Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, who supports the plan.

"As long as Fort Detrick continues to be as proactive as it has been in the community and with its neighbors, I don't anticipate any issues," she said.

But critics say biodefense expansion has become a boondoggle for government agencies and universities that are cashing in on fear. They note that only five people died as a result of the biggest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history, the anthrax letters.

And in that case, FBI investigators appear to believe the perpetrator was not a foreign terrorist but an American with ties to Fort Detrick or other U.S. biodefense labs.

"Influenza kills annually about 50,000 people in this country," said Milton Leitenberg, an expert on biowarfare at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies. "But we don't put our money into that.

"We sink it into bioterrorism. We're putting billions of dollars into a putative threat of disputed relevance at a time when there's a shortage of flu vaccine and measles vaccine."

Dr. David M. Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, also questioned government priorities.

"Bioterrorism is hollowing out public health from within," said Ozonoff. "It's much more likely that bird flu will kill millions of people than anthrax," he added, referring to the possibility that an avian flu strain in Asia could spread among humans.

Rutgers University biochemist Richard H. Ebright said consolidating high-security research at Fort Detrick makes some sense.

But he noted that other federally funded Biosafety Level 4 labs are approved for Boston University, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. On top of those, he said, the Detrick campus would create "an enormous overcapacity."

"If they proceed with this plan at Detrick, they should cancel Hamilton, Boston and Galveston," Ebright said.

The plan for the National Interagency Biodefense Campus illustrates vividly how the terror attacks of 2001 have transformed funding for biodefense.

Before 2001, the Army's biodefense research center, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, had little competition in research on exotic diseases that might be used as weapons. Nor was there much interest - post-Cold War budget cuts in the mid-1990s forced the Army to reduce the institute's staffing by 25 percent.

But things began to pick up in 1998, after former President Bill Clinton read The Cobra Event, a thriller by Richard Preston about a fictional bioattack, and became convinced that the threat was real.

That was the year that Dr. Donald A. Henderson, leader of the worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox, opened the first university biodefense think tank at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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