Thwarting the World’s Most Dangerous Pathogens: Biodefense Remains a National Priority

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Lab ratings can be confusing - here's a risk-level breakdown. For more details, see the table on Page Three. Image by Decoded Science

Lab ratings can be confusing – here’s a risk-level breakdown. For more details, see the table on Page Three. Image by Decoded Science

The Obama Administration’s National Biosurveillance Science and Technology Roadmap shows that whether weaponized or emerging from wild places disrupted by human incursions, protecting the nation against dangerous microbes is still front and center on the U.S. research agenda.

We live in a post-911 world. The terrorist attacks in 2001 followed almost immediately by letters containing anthrax spores shocked the nation and jolted the federal government into taking pre-emptive action against terrorism both foreign and national. A large part of this effort was directed against microbes that could be weaponized.

However, previously unknown threats –agents such as Ebola, Marburg, Hemorrhagic fever and mutating bird flu viruses, against which humans have not yet evolved immunity, are proving more dangerous than any infecting agents so far concocted by people with nefarious intent.

High-Security Labs Necessary, Say Experts

In 2002, a panel of experts convened to guide the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) on biodefense issues; they concluded that more biological safety level-3 (BSL-3) and -4 laboratory space was needed and, importantly, that these laboratories should be scattered throughout the country so that suspect pathogens could be rapidly identified as well as avoiding the dangers and expense inherent in long distant transport.

Congress agreed that a major expansion of research on “select agents,” was necessary. (Select agents are defined as those with the potential to pose a severe threat to human, other animal, and plant health.)  Thus, in 2003, the NIAID funded the building of a number of new biocontainment facilities with BSL-3 capacity. In addition, the NIAID granted two awards for construction of National Biocontainment Laboratories (NBLs) with BSL-4 capacity: One went to the University of Texas Medical Center at Galveston and the other to Boston University in Massachusetts.

U of Texas’ GNL Up and Running, Boston University Stymied by Public Opposition

Construction of the University of Texas’ Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) began in 2005 and completed in 2008. The move into the $174-million facility was immediate, and scientists there are currently working on an array of naturally-occurring infectious diseases including West Nile encephalitis, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenzas, as well as potential biothreats.

The White House has released the 2013 National Biosurveillance Science and Technology Roadmap. Image courtesy of the U.S. White House

Boston University’s new $200-million high-security research facility, called the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (NEIDL) and set in the middle of a crowed neighborhood, also completed in 2008 but raised immediate concerns. The community’s mistrust of BU was not unwarranted. In 2004 the university violated State regulations by failing to immediately report that three of its researchers working in a BLS-3 level laboratory were accidentally infected with the bacterial pathogen Francisella tularensis, a possible bioweapon. This prompted investigations by the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), the State Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Despite help from a Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP) of experts convened by the NIH in 2008, the NEIDL hasn’t as yet received permits for BSL-3 and -4 research. At present only its BSL-2 laboratories are in use.

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