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Last Updated

12 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 12, 2002.

Biodefense Testing Site Coming to Bethesda

By Susan Levine, Washington Post Staff Writer

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda plans to break ground next year on a $186.1 million facility for testing microbes that could be used by bioterrorists, though scientists' assurances of safety have not won over many neighbors.

The 85,000-square-foot Building 33 would allow the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to consolidate and significantly expand research on dangers such as anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox and other viruses and bacteria. Its state-of-the-art laboratories would operate at a "biosafety level 3," requiring controlled, double-door entries, inward air flow, filtered exhausts and sealed surfaces to minimize contamination risks to workers or the public.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected 13 others, NIAID has stepped into a leading role in the country's biodefense. Its mandate now is to develop vaccines, diagnostic tools and medicines to protect Americans against organisms that, in terrorists' hands, could cause widespread illness or death.

Institute director Anthony S. Fauci calls construction of the facility essential to meeting this challenge. Without Building 33, research will continue to be constrained because of insufficient laboratory space, he said. "You're going to be severely hampered in putting together a comprehensive biodefense effort."

No experiments on biowarfare agents would take place there, and the kind of work to be done would not be new to the NIH campus, Fauci stressed. Nor would level 3 laboratories.

But nearby residents remain unconvinced that the corner near Wisconsin Avenue and West Cedar Lane, just north of Bethesda's dense downtown core, is the best location for the facility. On NIH's Community Liaison Council, "there's a very strong opinion . . . of disapproval," said co-chair Ginny Miller. Local civic groups also have voiced concern or, in the case of the Wyngate Citizens Association, of which Miller is president, adamant opposition.

"It isn't that we don't trust their scientists, but mistakes can happen," she said.

Fauci says there is "virtually no chance" of an accidental release of microbes, noting that NIH has no recorded incidents of community contamination from existing laboratories. Another worry these days is whether terrorists might target the campus itself.

The same events that have prompted a huge increase in NIH's biodefense research funding -- from less than $100 million in fiscal 2001 to a proposed $1.75 billion in fiscal 2003 -- have made neighbors reconsider their proximity and their possible vulnerability. They've watched entrances be barricaded and visitors registered and screened. A nearly 9-foot-tall metal fence will mark the campus perimeter by spring.

"It's a different world, everything has changed," Miller said. "There are too many facilities [there] we didn't think about before."

Residents have asked why Building 33 can't be put at Fort Detrick, the Army's high-security medical research center in Frederick County. Fauci counters that there would be no realistic way to transplant NIH's critical mass of investigators, "the intellectual capital."

"It would take over $1 billion and about 10 years to do so," he said.

State Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery) agrees that Fort Detrick is a logistical impossibility. "Having the brain trust nearby is an important thing" because of transit concerns, she said.

As a longtime member of NIH's Biosafety Committee, Forehand believes plans for the new facility should move forward. "I just feel as if every possible safeguard is going to be taken in that building."

If construction begins by mid- to late 2003, officials expect Building 33 to be completed in 2005.