BIOLAB ONLY ON CAMPUS, UCD IS TOLD



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Last Updated

16 May 2003

Source: Sacramento Bee, May 16, 2003

Biolab only on campus, UCD is told

NIH won't consider alternative sites for the disease-study facility.

By Pamela Martineau -- Bee Staff Writer

UC Davis cannot build a proposed high-security infectious-diseases laboratory at any location other than its main campus if it is awarded federal funds to construct the project.

Officials with the National Institutes of Health delivered that message this week to officials at the University of California, Davis -- effectively squashing efforts in several local jurisdictions throughout the region to lure the $200 million project to those communities.

The NIH stance also places the local battle over the controversial lab back in the city of Davis, where officials in February voted unanimously to oppose the project. City officials said too many Davis residents do not want the lab in their community.

Davis City Councilman Mike Harrington, who opposes the lab, said the position taken by the NIH clearly defines the lab issue for local residents who may have thought the lab would be built elsewhere. He said he also believes the controversy on the project will continue to rage in Davis.

"If NIH funds this lab, it will create a huge turmoil in the city and in the end, I think the university will end up not building the lab," he said.

Marj Dickinson, vice chancellor for governmental relations at UC Davis, said the university will continue to pursue its plan to build the so-called biolab on campus at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Highway 113.

"We are going to stay the course," Dickinson said. She acknowledged the situation is "awkward," given the local opposition to the project.

"On this issue, it's disappointing that we haven't yet found common ground," Dickinson said.

In February, UC Davis submitted an application to the NIH to fund a biosafety lab where scientists would study such dangerous infectious diseases as Ebola, hantavirus, anthrax and plague. University and public health officials say the proposed lab is needed on the West Coast to quickly identify dangerous pathogens and to conduct key research in emergencies.

Several other universities and states' public health departments also are vying for the lab. Two labs will be funded by the NIH. The proposals are now under scientific peer review and a decision on the lab is expected to be announced by the NIH in early fall. The NIH weighs community support for the projects in determining funding.

The proposal sparked heated controversy in Davis, where scores of residents rallied against the project, saying they feared security breaches or attacks by terrorists could spread dangerous pathogens throughout the community.

The Davis City Council voted unanimously to oppose the project, saying it was too "divisive." They suggested in a letter to university officials and the NIH that UC Davis work to find another site for the lab.

UC Davis officials invited queries from other jurisdictions, saying they did not know if they could amend their proposal to NIH, but would submit the material to the federal officials anyway. Officials with UC Davis had given local jurisdictions a Wednesday deadline to submit official queries for the project. Instead, they issued a press release saying that NIH had notified them this week that it would not allow them to amend their proposal to include other possible lab sites.

The cities of West Sacramento, Woodland, and Winters made informal inquiries. Officials in Yuba County lobbied for the lab to be built at Beale Air Force Base. Another contingent of officials from Sacramento County prepared materials championing the shuttered McClellan Air Force Base as a possible site. Officials in Rancho Cordova also expressed interest in siting the facility at the shuttered Mather Air Force Base.

"We're still interested, because the situation is so fluid," said Paul Hahn, economic development director for Sacramento County. "We will continue to submit our proposal to the university and they can do with it what they will."

Yuba County Supervisor Bill Simmons said he believes it will be a loss for the state and region if the facility is not located somewhere in Northern California. He added that he hopes NIH can be persuaded to consider alternate sites.

Dickinson said the university will continue to work to educate the public on the project. A citizen advisory committee will be formed. In the past week, a slick mailer was sent to every household in Davis. In it, university officials outlined the need for the project and the type of research that would be conducted in the lab.

Samantha McCarthy, a founder of the Davis group Stop UCD Bio Lab Now, said she believes the decision by the NIH clarifies the biolab issue for local residents.

"The opposition will continue if this moves forward," McCarthy added. "There will be people chaining themselves and lying down in front of bulldozers. It will not be built here."

Mayor Susie Boyd said she too believes the opposition to the project is as strong as ever, although lab backers are now becoming more vocal. She added that the council has no plans to reconsider its vote of opposition.

"The only shot the university has now is to continue to educate the public about the project," Boyd said.