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US Government Launches Biolab Building Spree

Courtesy of the CDCThe September 11 attacks and five anthrax-related deaths later in the fall of 2001 made it clear that the United States was vunerable to terrorist actions. Those events also caught the nation immediately short of the high-level biocontainment lab space needed to develop antibioweapon vaccines and drug treatments.Since then, the US Congress has approved plans for the National Institutes of Health to spend as much as $500 million on new biosafety space over the next few years,1

By | May 24, 2004

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Courtesy of the CDC

The September 11 attacks and five anthrax-related deaths later in the fall of 2001 made it clear that the United States was vunerable to terrorist actions. Those events also caught the nation immediately short of the high-level biocontainment lab space needed to develop antibioweapon vaccines and drug treatments.

Since then, the US Congress has approved plans for the National Institutes of Health to spend as much as $500 million on new biosafety space over the next few years,1 and other federal agencies hope to receive as much as another $1.2 billion from Congress for new space they have planned, for a total of $1.7 billion. The federal biolab build-out is massive and unprecedented. NIH plans to build 8,082 square meters of the highest-level space, 20 times as much as its 390 square meters of existing usable space. The Army, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) also plan to build new secure labs.

With so much space and money at stake, questions have proliferated. The federal government has not defined exactly how much biocontainment space is needed, how much money it will take to operate these labs every year, or how to phase in thousands of new researchers to staff the new labs. One prominent opponent asserts that the federal building program is overkill and will impoverish nonbiodefense biological research for decades to come. "I definitely believe that current and approved [biosafety lab] construction will result in significant over-capacity," said Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor and microbiology researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

SPACE SHORTFALL

After the 2001 attacks, the United States found itself critically short in lab space needed to study pathogens for which there are no vaccines, including viruses highly infectious by aerosol: Lassa fever, Marburg, and Ebola. Access to these pathogens requires bio-safety level 4 (BSL-4) labs,2 the highest level of containment, where researchers wear pressurized suits supplied by outside air. The researchers work only under sealed hoods equipped with built-in rubber gloves.

Most of the available civilian BSL-4 space is concentrated in two labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and is open only to government researchers. "That space is busy as it can be," says Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and spokesperson for its biolab building program. Adds NIAID deputy director John LaMontagne, "We have a waiting list of projects to be performed." Much smaller civilian BSL-4 labs operate in San Antonio and Atlanta, and in April, a 185 square meter lab opened at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston.

Twice as large as the CDC labs at 929 square meters, the nation's largest BSL-4 lab space is at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Md. It is also overused, housing twice as many researchers as it was designed for. According to a 2002 report to Congress by the Secretary of the Army Thomas White, "Every area of USAMRIID is over-capacity and borders on unsafe."3

Altogether, the nation's combined total of BSL-4 lab space, 1,689 square meters, "is extremely limited and obviously insufficient," says Stephen Morse, director of Columbia University's Center for Public Health Preparedness. To remedy such shortages, NIAID awarded grants of about $120 million each in October 2003 to help pay for new BSL-4 labs at Boston University and a second, much larger lab at UTMB. Together they will add 3,925 square meters, more than twice the current amount of space.

In addition, NIAID is planning to build two BSL-4 labs for its employees, one in Hamilton, Montana, (which is now undergoing an environmental assessment) and the other in a new National Interagency Biodefense Campus at USAMRIID. They will add 2,879 square meters, almost twice as much as exists now. In addition, the CDC plans to build 1,275 square meters of new BSL-4 space in Atlanta. DHS, the Army, and possibly USDA also will build new labs there, although none of them have announced how much of the highest-level space they plan to build. However, Ft. Detrick spokesman Chuck Dasey affirms an estimate by The Scientist that the proposed Army building for USAMRIID would contain roughly 3,000 square meters.

Ebright thinks it's unjustified to add to the 11,036 square meters of BSL-4 labs plus even more space in the new DHS and USDA buildings. If the Ft. Detrick biodefense campus is approved in toto, Ebright says, "NIH plans for BSL-4 facilities in Hamilton, Galveston, and Boston should be canceled." But Hirschberg defends NIAID's building plan. "Everybody we talk to says they need more high-level, modern containment space," she says. "We've done some internal analyses that support that, based on rough estimates of how much research we're supporting, how much of it we would expect to need."

Other scientists are not so certain. "I think it's very hard to assess those exact needs," Morse says, "because we're trying to predict a trajectory five to ten years into the future" when the new labs will come on line, and it's impossible to predict now how many new vaccines and drugs will need testing then. "So it is quite possible that there may be an overabundance." Fred Murphy, professor and former dean of the veterinary school at the University of California, Davis, says too much is a good thing, because the nation needs "standby capacity to do the diagnostics and detection for an episode or episodes that are bigger than anything we've seen."

SECURITY IN MULTIPLES

One step down from the BSL-4 in containment security, BSL-3 labs do not require researchers to wear pressurized suits. These labs house research on diseases such as anthrax, plague, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. An ordinary biological research lab containing no infectious diseases would be rated BSL-1.

<p>SAFE SCIENCE:</p>

Courtesy of the CDC

CDC researcher Patrick Stockton examines a T-25 flask used to isolate SARS virus. The US government plans a massive buildout of these biosafety level-3 labs. The CDC scientist pictured on the opposite page works in a biosafety level-4 lab.

Last fall, NIAID awarded $7 million to $21 million each to build nine new BSL-3 labs around the country. The four new labs planned at Ft. Detrick and the Boston and Galveston labs will all contain large amounts of BSL-3 space, as does the existing USAMRIID lab. Ebright asserts that NIAID has already funded more new BSL-3 labs than needed, because a national building boom in BSL-3 space has occurred. The new CDC lab will contain considerable space. Private companies and universities across the country, including Rutgers, are planning their own BSL-3 labs, he says, creating "a grotesque level of overcapacity."

"Facilities are being built, including vivarium [animal] facilities, on spec," Ebright says, "with the assumption that the easy access to research support in this area will justify the cost of building the facility." Hirschberg says she also knows of universities building BSL-3 labs over and beyond those that NIAID is funding. She can't say for sure whether too much new space has been planned, because there's no accurate inventory of existing BSL-3 labs. "We know what we're building, but it's hard to get a handle on what's already out there," she adds.

LaMontagne says that a committee of federal agencies reporting to DHS is now conducting a national needs assessment of biocontainment space. Results are expected in about a year. Until then, he says, "Whether we need six times more, 12 times more, or 100 times more, I can't tell you."

SUPPLYING THE STAFF

If all the planned BSL-3 and BSL-4 space is actually built, it could create a shortage of trained researchers, according to USAMRIID's Erik Henchal and others. "When I look at the capacity for studies," Henchal says, the number of BSL-qualified researchers "has to be five-fold bigger than we [have] now. It would rival the HIV program."

Ebright says that because so many new researchers will have to be trained so quickly to run these labs, the average lab worker's job experience will be much shorter than it is for scientists already trained and working. "With the massive influx of researchers into the area, there will be a decrease in the mean level of training, a decrease in the mean level of experience in operating and managing the facilities." Former USAMRIID commander David Franz agrees, considering Ebright's conclusion logically inescapable, given the staggering need.

Ebright asserts that staffing and operating these new labs will drain the parent NIH research budgets for decades to come, stealing money sorely needed elsewhere in biology research. Franz says he's sensitive to that possibility as well. In response, NIAID's Hirschberg says, "I am not aware of any existing information about that. We are currently trying to get a handle on that but are nowhere near to having [that] kind of information. It's an important point and we're definitely working on it." LaMontagne says the federal biolabs coordinating committee has also been working on defining lab space and staff training needs.

John Dudley Miller johnmiller@nasw.org is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences