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Last Updated

13 Dec 2002

Source: Boston Globe, September 2, 2002.

Quiet federal disease lab has new mission after 9/11

By Chryss Cada, Globe Correspondent, 9/2/2002

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - If not for the shiny new security fence, the nondescript building would fade into the neutral shades of the foothills behind it.

In fact there's not even a sign to identify the Centers for Disease Control outpost in the war against bioterrorism. The Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, the CDC's only lab outside of Atlanta, is just another building on the Colorado State University's quiet Foothills Campus - past the equine research stables and the ducks on College Lake and before the expensive new houses on the south side of the campus.

Vistors are told to look for the guard shack.

''We've been out here for 35 years, just quietly going about our work,'' said Duane Gubler, director of the Fort Collins lab. ''Nobody even really knew what we were doing out here.

''But that has certainly changed.''

The lab's primary responsibility is researching and monitoring naturally occurring plague and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. Work done at the lab has become an important weapon in the fight against both man-made bioterrorism and the naturally occurring West Nile virus.

''It's the same as in any business; there are things we've been plugging along on,'' Gubler said. ''BT [bioterrorism] was one of those things until 9/11. Now it's our top priority.''

Of the lab's 172 employees, perhaps the busiest is Dr. Lyle Petersen, associate director for medical science. The physician and epidemiologist came to the facility three years ago to focus on West Nile research. A couple of weeks before the events of Sept. 11, he volunteered to head up the bioterrorism unit.

Petersen, the CDC's spokesman at the lab, previously was involved in setting up Germany's disease control center. Prior to that, he worked with the CDC in Connecticut. He headed up the investigation of the New York City anthrax contamination last fall.

''When I moved to Colorado, nobody had even heard of West Nile,'' he said. ''On the East Coast, everybody was familiar with it, but out West it was like, `What's that?'''

While Petersen said that he and his fellow researchers were anticipating a larger West Nile outbreak this year than in the past, he has been surprised by how quickly the infection has spread.

''Part of the problem is that every single human is susceptible,'' he said. ''Because people haven't been exposed to it before, no one has built up an immunity.''

Vector-borne diseases, in general, went off the radar screen about 30 years ago, Petersen said. As a result, fewer people went into that field, and now the country is short on expertise on such illnesses and the infrastructure to deal with them.

''I wouldn't say it's a weakness, but we definitely have some catching up to do,'' Gubler said.

Before the emphasis on West Nile research and bioterrorism preparedness began in 1999, the Fort Collins lab was focusing on dengue, a mosquito-borne illness which kills hundreds around the world annually, and Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness which can damage the joints and nervous system.

''Because we are responsible for three of the top 10 agents of concern, we've really become the hub for bioterrorism,'' Gubler said.

Two of those agents, tularemia and plague, are ''Class A,'' meaning they are of top concern.

Plague, transmitted by rodent fleas, was the Black Death that killed millions in Europe during the Middle Ages. Modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if an infected person is not treated promptly, the disease is likely to cause severe illness or death. Tularemia is a plague-like disease that is transmitted by the bite of a tick or a flea or by consumption of contaminated food or water.

The third potential bioterrorism agent tracked and studied in Fort Collins is Venezuelan equine encephalitis. Rarely fatal and difficult to spread, the disease is thought to be an unlikely choice for bioterrorists.

In addition to monitoring these agents, the division is working on tests to limit the spread of viral weapons and determine their origin.

The division was established in Logan, Utah, in the 1950s as the Disease Ecology Section of the CDC to deal with forms of viral encephalitis transmitted by mosquitoes in the Western United States.

In 1963, the unit moved to Greeley, Colo., and in 1967 to its present location in Fort Collins. The plague program was moved from San Francisco to the unit at that time. In 1974, the name was changed to the Division of Vector-Borne Viral Diseases. In 1989, it was renamed the Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases to reflect its responsibilities for Lyme disease, plague, and other bacterial infections.

Given its increasingly important role and the deteriorating condition of the 35-year-old building it is housed in, the division is in line for a new lab. The president's budget for the coming fiscal year includes $74 million for a new Fort Collins facility.

The building serving 172 was designed for 50. There is a waiting list to use the most secure labs and 70 offices have been located in modular trailers.

''The past five years or so, our requests weren't given that much consideration,'' said Mary Ellen Fernandez, a deputy director of the division. ''But now it looks like we're going to get the new building we need.

''I guess there are some advantages to being noticed.''