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Last Updated

22 Sep 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2003


Biosafety Lab Would Imperil City of Davis, Some Contend

By Rhashad Pittman, Times Staff Writer

September 22, 2003

SACRAMENTO On Saturday afternoons in Davis, Little League baseball games are packed with parents. Joggers run freely along dark streets late at night. The city's downtown has more bookstores than bars.

Surrounded by farmland, Davis lies 15 miles west of downtown Sacramento. Residents say it is a great place to raise a family.

But that all may change, they fear, if the town's university becomes home to a high-security infectious disease lab paid for by the federal government.

Soon residents will know if UC Davis will be awarded the $200-million National Biocontainment Laboratory, where researchers will study diseases and pathogens such as plague, anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease and West Nile virus.

By the end of this month, the National Institutes of Health will pick one or two university sites for the laboratory, agency officials said.

If chosen, UC Davis' lab would allow for a quicker response to outbreaks of biological diseases on the West Coast and attract top scientists to a campus already renowned for its medical and veterinary schools' expertise in infectious diseases, university officials said.

But some residents see the lab only as a potential "terrorist target" that would bring a military presence to town. In the last few months, residents in the city of about 62,000 have petitioned, protested and sued the university in attempts to prevent the lab from coming.

"This is a place where you go to the farmers market on a Wednesday night and the kids eat pizza," said Tracy Kaplan, a 38-year-old mother of two. "Somehow I think this facility would cast a pall on that."

Julie Partansky, a former mayor of Davis, said the lab just might make her move.

"I really don't like the idea of living in a town that has a maximum-security facility with armed guards 24 hours a day," said Partansky, who has lived in Davis for 35 years.

San Antonio, Chicago and Atlanta all are hosts to what the Institutes of Health label "Biosafety Level 4" labs. The federal agency recently approved another in Hamilton, Mont.

The labs are part of a $6-billion plan, known as Project BioShield, intended to increase biodefense research. Institutions in Chicago, Texas and New York are also finalists for the lab, university officials said.

In early September, UC Davis officials lost out on a separate grant for biodefense research, one of eight awards called the Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. The winners will receive a total of about $350 million over the next five years.

The recipients include the University of Washington, Harvard Medical School and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which is reportedly also a finalist for the biosafety lab.

But the excellence awards are not an indication of which institution will win the lab, said Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the deciding agency.

Hirschberg said there was "no question" that research funded by the awards would be conducted in the labs, "but it's not necessary for an institution to receive a center award to receive a biocontainment award," she said.

Lynne Chronister, associate vice chancellor of research at UC Davis, said she was disappointed about not having gotten the biodefense research money, but she added that university officials were still waiting to see who would win the biosafety lab.

"We thought we put together a superb proposal, but you just never know," she said. "It would have bolstered the research we were doing. However, there is a competition next year and we do intend to reapply."

If UC Davis wins the biosafety lab, it will sit in the middle of a 5-acre complex on the southwest edge of campus, near Interstate 80 and California 113.

A fence would surround the airtight facility, which would be behind freeway embankments and under 24-hour security.

Inside, researchers would wear full-body suits and be required to take showers with disinfectant solutions before leaving.

Davis resident Bob Snell, 63, said he would not mind living next door to the lab if it were on a secure military base, like nearby Travis Air Force Base, but he questioned putting it next to two highways.

"Anybody that drives by can shoot it with a missile or anything," Snell said. "Putting it 100 yards from the freeway, I mean that's just asking for trouble."

In recent months, opposition to the lab has grown so strong in Davis that the City Council wrote a letter to the university concluding that the facility would "remain an unwelcome project."

University officials said they have heard at public meetings all of the residents' worries, which include the possible release of disease-causing agents, facility break-ins and governmental, rather than university, control.

UC Davis faculty members have also expressed concern that classified research would be done at the lab.

Attorney Samantha McCarthy simply does not think the labs should exist, period.

"We don't believe it's appropriate to have it in any community, let alone a populous community," McCarthy said. "We just went to war over less."

McCarthy and her husband, attorney Donald B. Mooney, run the grass-roots organization Stop UCD BioLab Now, which sponsored an online petition that attracted nearly 2,000 signatures, she said.

In June, the couple sued the UC Regents for approving the lab proposal, saying the plan violates the California Environmental Quality Act. In the suit, the group said the lab "poses a risk of exposure and infection" and could have "significant impacts to air quality, water quality, public safety, traffic and circulation and recreation."

The group also organized a demonstration in July on the steps of Mrak Hall, site of UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef's office. During the protest, dozens of demonstrators held signs and wore buttons.

Even if UC Davis wins the lab, McCarthy said, she will continue to oppose it.

"We will not stop fighting this thing," she said. "I guarantee the community will not go for it."