Military Ratchets up Dangerous Pathogen Research at Fort Detrick

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Labs study deadly viruses like Ebola to better combat outbreaks in the wild. Image courtesy of the U.S. CDC

The only Department of Defense laboratory with BSL-4 research capability, USAMRIID is charged with protecting our troops against endemic diseases as well as agents of biological warfare. Researchers study the most dangerous of these at Fort Detrick. 

The national call for additional high-security research capacity after the terrorist attacks in 2001 prompted the Department of Defense (DOD) to release funds for its planned $680-million laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland.

USAMRIID is DOD’s only facility with BSL-4 capability and is, therefore, charged with investigating the world’s most deadly pathogens. These include Ebola, hemorrhagic and Lassa fever viruses as well as Marburg and Nipah viruses. Also investigated, albeit at the BSL-3 level, is the occasional killer bacterium typified by Bacillus anthracis or toxic shock-producing Staphylococcus aureus.

Construction on the new facility began in 2009 and builders expect to complete the project by the end of 2014; however, move-in won’t begin until the inspection and commission process is complete. When that finally happens, USAMRIID scientists will have the latest BSL-4 biocontainment technology and significantly expanded research capability.

USAMRIID Attracts Other High-security Research Facilities to its Campus

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), has recently completed its own high-containment unit next to USAMRIID at Ft. Detrick. Emphasis is on diseases requiring high levels of security and is focused on the causative pathogens’ basic biology and disease-causing mechanisms, including the components that define its life cycle, transmission, virulence and invasiveness. A key goal is to correlate these findings with clinical test results which include telemetry and imaging.

NIAID says locating the new laboratory, known as the Integrated Research Facility (IRF) at Fort Detrick not only enhances its biodefense research agenda, it also saves money on support services. The IRF is already running at the BSL-2 level.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), operates BSL-3 laboratories along side of USAMRIID and the NIAID and focuses exclusively on pathogens that threaten the food supply. Its missions are to develop rapid detection techniques that quickly identify emerging crop pathogens and to prevent microbial diseases affecting other countries from spreading to the U.S.

For example, Phytophthora kernoviae, a fungus-like organism, is killing beech trees and rhododendrons throughout England. Although the organism is not yet effecting U.S. plants, USDA researchers are preparing for a potential invasion.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), also a division of the USDA, runs a high-security forensics laboratory at Fort Detrick called the National Biodefense Analyses and Countermeasures Center (NBACC). NBACC is configured for BSL-4 level research.

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