'Anti-Bioterror' Labs Raise
Risk To US, Critics Say
Accidents, Costs Cited As 14 Are Planned For US

By Frank James
Washington Bureau - Chicago Tribune
WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration project meant to help keep the nation safe from bioterrorism has raised the question of whether it might actually increase that risk.
The government is expanding the number of state-of-the art laboratories assigned to find bioterrorism countermeasures. But critics worry that opening more than a dozen new labs, including one in the Chicago area, and hiring perhaps thousands of additional researchers will dramatically increase the chance of an intentional or accidental unleashing of a lethal infection on Americans.
"This is money that is actively degrading our safety and security," said Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and critic of the expansion. "Every dollar spent on these facilities puts the U.S. at higher, not lower, risk of being subject to bioweapons attack. It's really extraordinary."
The federal government is spending at least $372.6 million toward construction of 11 labs, mainly at universities, with the educational institutes also providing money.
Supporters say the expansion is essential. They say the Sept. 11 and subsequent anthrax attacks exposed a shortage of the highly specialized lab space needed to do research on bacteria and viruses that could be used as bioweapons, as well as on potential vaccines and therapies.
They also reject the idea that the expansion will make a biological attack on the U.S. more likely. ...
The debate centers on the specialized labs either under way or on the drawing board that could house some of the nastiest microbes known to humans.
In addition to the 11 new "hot labs" at academic centers, NIH is building similar labs at three existing facilities. Scientists use the term "hot" because of the dangerous microbes the labs will contain.
Two of hot labs--one at Boston University, the other at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston--will feature the highest level of biological containment. The new buildings and equipment will cost an estimated $150 million to $200 million apiece, partially funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with the universities matching taxpayers' money. Other new hot labs will get smaller federal grants.
Researchers at labs such as in Boston or Galveston, known as Biosafety Level 4 facilities, wear pressurized, self-contained outfits resembling spacesuits and handle the most dangerous infectious agents that can spread through the air, or in unknown ways. No vaccines or therapies are available against them.
Hemorrhagic fever viruses, such as Ebola, are among the potential bioweapons that must be handled in such laboratories. Other microbes worked with in these labs usually are not considered possible bioweapons--tick-borne encephalitis, for instance.
Besides the two Level 4 labs, nine labs designated as Level 3 facilities also are planned. One, expected to cost $30 million, would be at Argonne National Laboratory, which is in DuPage County and operated by the University of Chicago. Level 3 labs also require significant precautions, such as decontamination of materials leaving the facility, but no pressurized protective suits.
Level 3 facilities are permitted to work with the tularemiabacteria, which can cause respiratory distress and, left untreated, death. They can also handle Yersiniapestis, the plague bacteria that caused the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s, killing 20 million to 30 million people. The same bacteria killed 12 million Chinese during a plague in the 1800s.
Besides the university-operated facilities it intends to open, the federal government is planning new biocontainment labs at existing federal science operations, including Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., and Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Md.
Beyond those labs, private institutions plan others. George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., for example, announced recently that it intends to construct a Level 3 biodefense lab in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and will seek federal funding for it. ...
But critics are more concerned about the increased likelihood of accidents or terrorism created by all the new space. The potential rises, they say, because some institutions adding containment labs do not have enough experience operating such facilities.
Also, the number of researchers certified to handle the dangerous microbes will grow significantly from the current 11,000, raising the probability of more accidents, critics say. ...
The fear is that such infections could spread beyond the lab as researchers, unaware they are harboring the microbes, have contact with families, friends and strangers. ...
But it's not just accidents that could pose a danger. Some observers fear the kind of calamity that could be wrought by an unhinged researcher or one with sympathies for Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
Martin Hugh-Jones, one of the world's leading anthrax experts and a professor at Louisiana State University, recalls the days before Sept. 11 when an anthrax conference might draw 150 researchers, about 80 percent of those in that field worldwide.
"We all knew each other," he said.
Now, post Sept. 11, there are 317 public and private labs with full or provisional certification in the U.S. alone with thousands of researchers and Level 2 labs working with anthrax, he said.
And with researchers such as Hugh-Jones suspecting that the 2001 anthrax attacks were the work of someone who got the bacteria from a U.S. weapons lab, they fear what might occur with many more researchers having access.
Hugh-Jones said he was concerned that if funding drops and researchers lose their jobs, will they leave or "are they going to say, `I'm going to do what somebody did in 2001 to get the funds going again.'"
Beyond that, critics also worry that the rapid growth of U.S. biodefense efforts could lead to the equivalent of a global biodefense race, with other nations stepping up research efforts without the safeguards typical in the U.S. ...



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