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Last Updated

05 Mar 2003

Source: Sacramento Bee, March 5, 2003

Yolo board again backs UCD biolab

The supervisors reject an effort to reverse their previous support of the infectious-diseases facility.

By Pamela Martineau -- Bee Staff Writer

Yolo County supervisors Tuesday upheld their support of a proposed high-security infectious-diseases laboratory at UC Davis, rejecting a supervisor's bid to oppose the project.

In a 3-2 vote, the board rejected an attempt by Supervisor Dave Rosenberg to overturn its earlier support of the controversial lab. Rosenberg, who represents a portion of the city of Davis, asked the board to reconsider because he believes the "overwhelming majority" of Davis residents do not want the facility on the local campus.

"I'm telling you that people in Davis, across all political spectrums ... oppose it," he said.

Supervisor Helen Thomson, who also represents part of Davis, voted with the majority to support the facility. She said she believes some Davis residents support the project. She added that many who oppose the lab are acting out of fear and need more education about the proposed facility.

"I don't think it's a leader's job to succumb to that fear," Thomson said.

Lab opponents in the audience bristled at Thomson's assertion.

"Davis is the second most educated community in this country ...," said Samantha McCarthy, a member of Stop UCD Bio Lab Now. "To insinuate that what we are reacting out of uneducated fear is condescending and offensive."

Yolo County Supervisor Frank Sieferman Jr. joined Rosenberg in opposing the lab.

The University of California, Davis, and several other universities throughout the nation are vying for funds from the National Institutes of Health to build a $200 million biocontainment laboratory. In the proposed lab, which would be built on campus at the intersection of Highway 113 and Interstate 80, scientists would study dangerous infectious diseases such as hantavirus, anthrax, Ebola and plague.

Supporters say the proposed Bio Safety Level 4 lab, which would offer the highest security that now exists in the nation's labs, would fill a critical need on the West Coast for a laboratory to study some of the most dangerous pathogens known to science. The campus, they argue, is an ideal location, since researchers from existing campus facilities such as the medical school, primate center and school of veterinary medicine can share their expertise, working within the facility on vaccines and therapies for communicable diseases.

"This is so important to the state of public health and to training," said Joseph Silva, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine.

But opponents of the lab say no facility, no matter how well designed, is risk free. They believe the university has a poor safety track record, which could result in dangerous pathogens escaping from the facility into the community. They also fear the lab could become the target of terrorists.

Several opponents who spoke at Tuesday's meeting said they support such labs, but believe they should not be located in metropolitan areas.

"There isn't a single building that can withstand a terrorist attack. A single attack can render the region in peril," Rod McDonald said.

Last week, the Davis City Council voted to oppose the lab, abandoning an earlier neutral position. Council members said they believed the lab is not welcome in Davis.

The proposal by UC Davis has been endorsed by other jurisdictions in the region, including the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the Sacramento City Council. Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, also have endorsed the project. Wolk issued a statement Monday reiterating her support.

Marj Dickinson, vice chancellor for governmental affairs for UC Davis, said campus officials are "gratified" that the Yolo supervisors maintained their support.

NIH officials weigh community support when determining how to award funds. Lab opponents plan to meet with NIH officials this month.

"If they don't have the community buy-in, we have to take that into consideration," said Mary Kirker, chief grants management officer at the NIH's National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

UC Davis submitted its proposal to NIH on Feb. 10. It is now under "peer review" by scientists throughout the nation. If the proposal passes that review, NIH officials may visit Davis to study the proposal in more depth. The NIH is expected to announce its award in early fall.