Scientists fault biodefense lab planning at Fort Detrick

Risk assessment 'not sufficiently robust,' National Academy of Sciences committee says

October 07, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A panel of independent scientists has found flaws in the Army's planning to shield workers and the public from harm from a proposed biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

The seven-member committee assembled by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk assessment being done by an Army contractor is "not sufficiently robust" to help design a facility that will reduce potential hazards.

The $584 million, 492,000-square-foot Medical Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Facility would develop and test vaccines and drugs to prevent or treat infectious diseases. Officials have said they hope to begin construction in 2013 and finish by 2018. Some residents have voiced concern that illnesses could spread from viruses and other disease-causing organisms the lab might work with.

The panel said the safety planning for designing the facility needed work. In its Sept. 16 report, the experts noted that the contractor had not taken into account all possible hazards, specifically mentioning the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which five people died and more than $1 billion was spent decontaminating buildings. Federal investigators ultimately concluded that the attacks had come from a disgruntled scientist at Fort Detrick, who committed suicide before he could be charged.

Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski released a joint statement Friday calling on the Army to heed the report and modify the facility's design to "ensure the safety of the workers in the facility and the surrounding community."

The Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command released a statement saying it was reviewing the report.

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