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New Strategy, New Labs

Presidential directive, ‘hot’ labs to prepare U.S. for bioterrorism

May 10, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 19

Credit: CDC Photo
A CDC scientist showers in a protective suit before leaving a BSL-4 lab.
Credit: CDC Photo
A CDC scientist showers in a protective suit before leaving a BSL-4 lab.

Top Bush Administration officials recently unfurled an unclassified version of a presidential directive outlining the government’s strategy for preparing the U.S. for potential bioterrorism. The directive, “Biodefense for the 21st Century,” comes on the heels of mounting fears over a building boom in high-containment biodefense labs.

The directive lays out the responsibilities of U.S. agencies in preventing, detecting, and responding to bioterrorist attacks. It mandates no new major programs and authorizes no new funding beyond the nearly $6 billion the Administration now spends annually on biodefense. Instead, it is meant to spark the development of new diagnostic technologies and therapeutics, boost intelligence sharing among agencies, and hasten reporting of possible bioterrorism incidents.

Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry at Rutgers University, faults the directive on several fronts. He says too much money is being spent with too little planning. “Duplication of effort is rampant.”

Under the directive, the Department of Health & Human Services is charged with anticipating future threats from innovative biotechnology and emerging infectious diseases. As part of that mission, the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is funding the construction of 11 high-containment “hot” labs at universities to research countermeasures against possible bioterror agents.

Last September, NIAID granted the Boston University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), Galveston, each $120 million to build National Biocontainment Labs (NBL). These highest containment Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs will be equipped to handle agents that produce life-threatening diseases for which no treatments are available.

NIAID followed up with another $120 million in grants ranging from $7 million to $21 million to nine other universities, mostly in the East and South. These institutions will build BSL-3 Regional Biocontainment Labs capable of handling airborne infectious agents.

These 11 new biodefense labs—especially the one in Boston—are raising the hackles of residents who fear for their safety and see no economic gains. The Boston City Council is now considering a ban on BSL-4 research, says Peter Shorett of the Center for Responsible Genetics. Academic researchers also worry about scientific openness and the diversion of funding from research on actual problems like malaria to studies of potential threats.

Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, an organization that works on bioweapons issues, worries about “public access of information about biodefense labs’ activities” and about other BSL-3 university and private labs now handling select (potential bioweapons) agents.
BSL-4 labs exist at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, NIH, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) facility at Fort Detrick, Md. Georgia State University has a small BSL-4 lab, and UTMB is just opening its own small BSL-4 lab headed by Clarence J. Peters, who previously worked at CDC and USAMRIID.

Peters notes that “a number of BSL-4 agents are significant threats as emerging infections.” So, he says, research on these agents enhances national security in two ways: “against bioterror threats and against current and future emerging infections.”

New BSL-4 labs are to be built at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Labs, raising the specter, some critics say, of a new biological arms race. And the Pentagon, NIAID, and the Department of Homeland Security are building new BSL-4 capability at Fort Detrick. NIAID is also building a BSL-4 facility at its Rocky Mountain lab in Hamilton, Mont.

Ebright agrees that additional BSL-4 capacity is needed. But, he says, “that need can be met with the construction of a single facility in a secure location: Fort Detrick.” The projected “facilities at Hamilton, Boston, and Galveston can’t be justified on scientific, public health, or national security grounds.”


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