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Caughts biowpeaons labs

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Scientist counsels caution in building additional labs for bioterror agent research

Government plans to build new, high-level containment labs to study potential bioterror agents represent a boon for researchers, but some scientists urge caution.

One nationally prominent skeptic is Richard Ebright, a biochemist and lab director at Rutgers University's Waksman Institute. Ebright is a member of the American Academy of Microbiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institue investigator.

Here are interview excerpts:

What's your concern about expanding biodefense labs?

There's a double concern. A first concern is the misapplication of limited resources for biomedical research. The second, perhaps more serious concern is increasing the number of locations with access to biological agents with possible use in bioterrorism.

Haven't the existing labs been relatively safe?

The safety records are reasonably sound. There have been specific failures. There have been multiple accidental or unauthorized releases at the facility in Fort Detrick. There was one widely reported last year, a select agent pathogen being found in hallways and in office areas. It was anthrax.

The more serious issue is biosecurity rather than biosafety. Increasing the number of persons and locations where these agents are accessible will surely increase the likelihood of deliberate release.

Can't security safeguards work?

Security has been increased at two levels. Within the Department of Defense at Army facilities, they're operating under an interim set of security measures that are quite stringent, requiring triple physical-access control. That means there have to be at least three points at which entry can be secured -- a fence, a front door and a laboratory door. There's a requirement for video monitoring on at least one level, and there's a requirement that two individuals be present during all work.

Outside the Department of Defense there has also been improving security, but at this stage it wouldn't bring security up to the status of security inside the Department of Defense before the anthrax attacks. For a private corporation or an academic institution, the sole physical security currently prescribed is that there be a lock on the (disease) agent's storage container and a lock on the door to the laboratory.

Can the government develop the vaccines it needs without this expansion ?

Of the three agents generally considered the highest threat level, which are smallpox, anthrax and plague, there is an effective vaccine against smallpox and has been for more than 150 years. There is an effective vaccine against anthrax, and there is movement toward a vaccine against plague.

The Biosafety Level 4 containment facilities, none of those facilities is relevant to any of the agents I've just described. By international agreement, smallpox can be studied at only one location in the United States (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta), so biocontainment facilities outside the CDC are irrelevant to smallpox.

There are only five agents that are Biosafety Level 4 agents, none of which is a public health threat and none of which is considered a high-level biodefense threat.

What are they?

The first category is the hemorrhagic fever viruses, which include Ebola and Marburg. The second is the Hendra viruses. The third category is the hantaviruses. The fourth category is Cercopithecine (simian) herpes virus, and then the last category is tick-borne encephalitis virus. For three of those five categories, most work is not Biosafety Level 4-specified containment work in any event, only work with production quantities or concentrates of material, which would generally not be research. None of those agents except hanta is a public health threat in the U.S.

But isn't it easy to develop them into something threatening?

I would definitely not characterize it as easy. The former Soviet Union did have a program on hemorrhagic fever viruses. They never deployed a hemorrhagic fever virus weapon. Of those categories, the hemorrhagic fever virus is the only one that would be a plausible bioweapons threat. It's not a bioweapons threat from al-Qaida; it would require the resources of a state.

There are bacterial agents that are much more readily available and much easier to work with that would represent a threat from substate organizations.

So why are we building BSL 4 labs?

I think it's driven by budgetary and bureaucratic considerations. Congress wanted to respond to Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, and it responded as it knows how to, which is to appropriate additional funds to an area.

In a one-year period it represents a 61/2-fold increase targeted to biodefense. There's never been a 61/2-fold increase previously in any targeted area on any disease or public health issue in any institute of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in any year ever. This was a completely unprecedented increase, much, much larger than the initial ramp-up for AIDS or for cancer.

There is a need for additional Biosafety Level 4 capacity. A single large facility at the Fort Detrick campus would be more than enough to accommodate that need. But we'll be getting four such facilities.

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