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Last Updated

04 Nov 2002

Source:  Contra Costa Times, November 4, 2002.

UC Davis proposes new lab to study bioterrorism agents

Demand for the study of new threats means opening more facilities


UC Davis scientists hope to build a laboratory to study the world's most dangerous and contagious diseases, in the first research center of its kind west of Texas.

The lab would allow the study of potential bioterrorism agents and horrible tropical afflictions with intense safety measures now available at only three other U.S. labs.

The proposal has the buy-in of almost every major research institution in the state, including Stanford University, Scripps Research Institute, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the nine-campus UC system.

UC Davis must now persuade the National Institutes of Health, which has pledged to build one or two new facilities to study both potential bioterrorist threats and emerging infectious diseases.

Flush with money in the wake of last year's anthrax attacks, the federal agency plans as well to create research centers to build detectors, develop vaccines and study how these viruses and bacteria work.

The campus and its collaborators must land a research center to be eligible for the accompanying high-tech building, which could cost $190 million.

The UC Davis facility has strong support from both scientists and public health officials, but it will likely stir controversy in Davis and the larger research community.

Supporters are sure Davis is the right spot because of existing facilities -- a medical school, veterinary school and both primate and mouse research centers. But its greatest attribute may be the commodity even more rare in California: space.

"I think the motivation entirely starts with the fact that we think this is a very important national need," said UC Davis professor Frederick Murphy, overseer of the facility proposal, who spent years working with Ebola and other viruses at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many scientists who study these diseases say the labs, known as biosafety level 4 facilities, are key to understanding the diseases and figuring out how to detect and treat them before something horrible happens.

Such a facility has been featured in movies like "The Andromeda Strain" and books like "The Hot Zone." All who go inside wear a so-called "bunny suit," and no materials leave without being filtered or heated to destroy viruses and bacteria.

These labs deal with the most dangerous, contagious and deadliest diseases. Most diseases, including anthrax, can be handled safely in labs with fewer safeguards.

There are only three such sites in the United States -- the CDC in Atlanta, an Army site in Fort Dietrick, Md.; and a small San Antonio lab. A fourth, at the University of Texas medical school, will open next summer.

Scientists can examine parts of these scary bugs outside the lab, said Scripps professor Michael Buchmeier, who studies how viruses work and supports the Davis proposal. They can even develop vaccines and tests to diagnose or detect the virus outside these rare research facilities.

But "ultimately all of these things have to be confirmed and have to be tested in the whole virus," Buchmeier said. That means, inside a biosafety level 4 facility. "Our problem is that we can't get in either of those facilities in the near future because of demand."

Overcrowding was a problem before, and has been especially bad since last year's anthrax mailings, Buchmeier said. New facilities would ease the backlog and accommodate the surge in research interest in potential bioterror organisms.

California's public health department has considered a level 4 lab for years, but the renewed risk of bioterrorism has spurred it on. The department is talking to UC Davis about maintaining a presence in the new lab and making its resources available in case of emergency.

"What we realized is that these are really expensive, rather dangerous facilities, and we would want to partner with someone," said Paul Kimsey, head of the state public health laboratories. "We don't just want to be driving up the freeway one day and knock on the door to ask to use the facility."

Not everyone is happy about more level 4 facilities. Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University professor who has studied the issue, said that, at most, one new facility is all the country needs.

Instead of enhancing safety, more facilities means more potential targets for terrorists looking for access to dangerous diseases, Ebright said.

Such facilities should be operated with strict security requirements: triple fences, security guards, video cameras and personnel screening, he said. In general, universities are not equipped to follow these needed, but not mandated, requirements.

"All of this construction is being driven by well-intentioned political considerations not research considerations," he said.

Lawrence Livermore researcher Kimothy Smith, who works to develop bioterrorism detectors, said expanding knowledge of these dangerous bugs will require more research space.

"A year ago is a great demonstration of how simple and easy it is to find a chink in our preparedness," Smith said.

In addition, bioterrorism research will benefit study of naturally occurring diseases, said Harry Greenberg, associate dean of research at Stanford's medical school. "There has been a major interest in emerging infections for some time, and this (proposal) really overlaps with that."

Other level 4 sites have faced different difficulties in their startup. Community complaints about a proposed Montana facility have delayed construction while an environmental review is done. A Los Alamos Laboratory proposal for a biosafety level 3 facility, one step down in safety requirements and disease types housed there, faces a lawsuit to stop it.

The NIH is still evaluating the need for new level 4 facilities. Based on talks with experts, NIH officials think limited space is hampering research and is especially needed to study how infections and vaccines affect our closest relatives, nonhuman primates, said Carole Heilman, microbiology and infectious diseases director at the institute overseeing the facilities.

"We have tried our best to reflect the consensus of the broader infectious disease community," Heilman said. "Each university is beginning to grapple with the range of problems/opportunities that come from these facilities."

Davis mayor Susie Boyd has heard little opposition from residents since the proposal came to light several months ago. That could be because the university is still drawing up plans -- due in February. A decision could be made by summer.

"It will be controversial," said Boyd, who said she supports the plan if safety is a top priority. Davis "is a community, in general, that is really quite open-minded to such issues. I think also it is a community, in general, that will understand that it needs to be somewhere."

UC Davis will do all it can to make sure the area is informed of risks and benefits, said provost Virginia Hinshaw.

"We will be safer as a nation if we are well-prepared," said Hinshaw, an infectious disease expert.