[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: New Germ Labs Stir Debate Over Secrecy and Safety

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Wed Feb 11 11:58:43 PST 2004

This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

fascinating... I guess I'm only going to be surprised if the gov't installs an _Andromeda Strain_ style biolab with a built-in nuclear self-destruct :-)

khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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New Germ Labs Stir Debate Over Secrecy and Safety

February 10, 2004


A flood of federal money has led to a building boom for
high-security "hot labs," where the world's deadliest germs
and potential bioterrorist weapons can be studied. 

The laboratories would more than triple the space to
develop vaccines and treatments for anthrax, plague,
hemorrhagic fevers and other killer pathogens, officials

Scientists, biodefense experts and officials say the
shortage of Biosafety Level 3 and 4 labs, those that handle
the most dangerous forms or the most lethal germs, has
hindered research on vaccines and treatments for diseases
they cause. 

"We desperately need this new space," said Dr. James M.
Hughes, director of the infectious disease center at the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Some biodefense experts challenge the need for so many
highest-containment labs. Those experts say that heightened
security, along with other recent federal actions aimed at
controlling exotic germs, is greatly increasing secrecy and
threatening to reduce the scientific openness that
nourishes good research. They said the elaborate rules
might also discourage scientists from working in the field,

"Becoming an armed camp to prevent organisms from falling
into the hands of malefactors is a self-defeating
approach," said Dr. Stanley Falkow, a professor of
microbiology and immunology at Stanford, who has criticized
Washington's approach to biodefense. 

Dr. Falkow decided last year to destroy his own plague
cultures rather than abide by proposed regulations on germs
that can be used as weapons. Even after the rules were
loosened in response to complaints, he declined to work on
such agents. 

"These rules affect not just the scientists who work with
me," he said, "but those who clean labs and all who have
access to them. It's just not worth it." 

The projects are unsettling local residents and
researchers, too, particularly near a proposed Level 4 lab
at the Boston University Medical Center, near Roxbury. 

"The issue is one of trust," said Dr. David M. Ozonoff, an
epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public
Health. "Though I still support such a lab in principle for
public health reasons, there aren't sufficient safeguards
to prevent work that violates the ethical standards of the
scientific community. Nor can safety through civilian
authority be assured." 

The expansion is fueled by the National Institutes of
Health, which has poured more than $1.7 billion a year into
biodefense since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the
lethal anthrax mailings a month later. 

Last September, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,
announced that the institutes would grant $240 million to
build two Level 4 National Biocontainment Laboratories, at
the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and
Boston University. Weeks later, the infectious diseases
agency issued an additional $120 million in grants ranging
from $7 million to $21 million to nine institutions to
build Level 3 space at the Regional Biocontainment

The institutes are also overseeing the construction of
Level 3 and 4 centers a $66.5 million building at its Rocky
Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., and a
100,000-square-foot $105 million Integrated Research
Facility with Level 3 and 4 laboratories near the Army
research installation at Fort Detrick, Md. 

Although the research budget of the acclaimed biodefense
lab at Fort Detrick is supposed to be cut, the health
institutes are more than doubling the Level 3 and 4 space
at its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a
spokesman for the centers said. 

Moreover, an official of the health institutes said, so
many universities and companies had built laboratories or
were expanding them for Level 3 research that it was hard
to determine how much Level 3 space existed. 

"We're considering conducting an inventory," said Rona
Hirschberg, an administrator at the infectious diseases

Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry at
Rutgers, who is a lab director at its Waksman Institute of
Microbiology in Piscataway, N.J., called much of the Level
4 construction overkill, as well as a misdirection of
scarce resources. 

The needs, he added, "can be met entirely by the
construction of a single large facility in a secure

In interviews, Dr. Fauci and other senior American
scientists and experts said more space was greatly needed,
and they dismissed safety concerns. They said there had
never been a documented case of illness in a community
caused by an escaped pathogen from a high-security

But many experts agree that such laboratories radically
change scientists' working conditions. Tighter security is
evident, and not just at the Centers for Disease Control,
which have armed the guards there, installed permanent
perimeter fencing and taken other steps to ensure safety. 

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which
won the grant to build the 13,000-square-foot Level 4
laboratory, has installed elaborate security at its new
2,000-square-foot "baby" hot lab, where about 12
researchers will soon start to work on viruses that cause
diseases like Lassa and Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fevers. 

Entry to the $15.5 million center, once open to most on
campus, is now restricted to people with coded identity
cards who pass through two checkpoints. Background checks
on researchers are routine, and access to the Level 4 lab
requires electronic fingerprints. The university is also
installing special doors and posting armed guards. 

On a tour, administrators called the lab a veritable "safe
within a safe," separated on its own floor from the rest of
the complex by pressurized air seals and welded scrubbed
air ducts that filter air to and from the lab. In case of a
loss of power loss, bioseals are to close off the lab

The lab is kept at a lower pressure than the atmosphere, so
that a leak lets air in, not out. Scientists and
technicians take chemical showers before and after work,
which is carried out in pressurized suits and is monitored
by security cameras. 

Planning for the Level 4 complex, which will cost $750,000
a year to operate, began in 1997. Dr. David H. Walker,
executive director of the Galveston branch's center for
biodefense and emerging infectious diseases, has slowly
transformed a sleepy medical backwater into a top center to
study naturally and unnaturally inspired disease. The
center has recruited scientific superstars like Dr. C. J.
Peters, its biodefense director who is widely known as the
quirky hero who battled the Ebola outbreak in "The Hot
Zone," the best-selling 1994 book by Richard Preston. 

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, biodefense has become big
business. Galveston received $3.7 million in federal grants
in the 1996-1997 fiscal year. In fiscal 2003-2004, it won
nearly $200 million. 

Dr. Walker said some community groups were initially
hostile to placing a hot lab in an area prone to
devastating hurricanes. He and his staff, he said, met
repeatedly with the community to explain safety measures. 

Juan Pena, the president of the University Area Association
and an employee of the institution, and Robert Mihovil, the
program director of the group whose wife is a nurse at the
campus, said the university had addressed their concerns. 

"They really included us in the planning," Mr. Mihovil

Several community leaders said that was not the case in
Boston, the other winner of the competition, where
opposition to the hot laboratories has been building. 

Although the University of Texas gave neighborhood groups
an edited version of its grant application, Boston
University did not do so for months. University
representatives said the lab would not have classified
work, but the application suggested that unidentified
government subcontractors might work in the Level 3 and 4
areas, especially in the event of a bioterrorist strike or
other national emergency. 

The complex, near Roxbury, is in a poor and densely
populated area. 

"The university has been uncooperative, elitist and
condescending," said Chuck Turner, the Boston City Council
member who represents the area. 

Mr. Turner, who has introduced a resolution in the council
to keep Level 4 labs out of Boston, said he questioned
using Federal Express and other such couriers to deliver
dangerous materials to the lab. 

Alternatives for Community and Environment, a neighborhood
association, plans to sue Boston University and the Boston
Redevelopment Authority to block the project for
environmental reasons. 

Dr. Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts, who is with the
Council for Responsible Genetics, another opposition group,
said he favored establishing a more active city biosafety
committee similar to one formed in the mid-70's in
neighboring Cambridge to oversee research and to review
building plans for safety. 

In an interview, Dr. Mark S. Klempner, Boston University
medical school's associate provost for research, who is in
charge of the project, said the laboratory would enhance
the scientific and economic standing of the region and be a
magnet for talent. 

"That's the biggest frustration," Dr. Klempner said. "A
year after telling people all these things, we find
ourselves in front of the same people who are not in favor
of the project, who still supply no data supporting the
threats they say exist, asking the same questions. There
are groups out there that don't really want a dialogue,
which is what we want." 

Public opposition helped thwart competitors for the federal
labs. The University of California at Davis, 90 minutes
northeast of Berkeley and highly regarded for its research
on infectious disease, was not selected partly because of
community opposition, critics and public health officials

Donald Mooney, a lawyer opposed to the lab, said his
community group had sent more than 1,200 pages to the
university and the N.I.H. documenting opposition. 

"They would tell us which pathogens were on campus, but not
their location or which researchers were working on them or
the type of research that would be conducted," he said. 

Maril Stratton, a spokeswoman at Davis, said the university
had repeatedly reached out to newspapers, city officials
and neighborhood groups to build support and had tried to
be open and transparent in all its dealings. 

"We made a most unusual effort to reach out," Ms. Stratton
said. "But this is an activist community, and although the
project was safe, it was a hard project. It sounded scary."

Concern that increased secrecy and security may harm
science is increasing. Dr. Peters, head of the Galveston
project, said he was worried that new restrictions might
alienate researchers whom labs like his are trying to

Dr. D. A. Henderson, who helped lead the campaign to
eradicate smallpox and has been advising the federal health
institutes for nearly two years, said the clash of cultures
between scientific openness and tight security might not be

"We've been well served by being pretty open," Dr.
Henderson said. "And I worry about not sharing information
that might advance the development of better antibiotics,
more vaccines and drugs." 

Dr. Hughes of the Centers for Disease Control said
scientists would have to adjust to tighter security because
of the growing threat of naturally occurring infectious
diseases and bioterrorism. 

"It took some of our people time to adjust," he said. "But
most scientists understand the threat and are excited to
take advantage of the new research opportunities that were
never before available." 



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