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

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The CDC grows dangerous viruses such as this H7N9 in carefully protected laboratories to learn more about the viruses. Image by James Gathany, CDC

BSL-4 Labs Necessary, But Too Few

Former BRP member Ian Lipkin of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City emphasizes the need for more high-level containment laboratories, saying that drug and vaccine testing can only be done in BSL-4s. But even though NIAID initially planned on substantially increasing research aimed at developing both vaccines and therapies against very dangerous microbes, especially those that could be weaponized, at present only two NIAID-funded facilities with BSL-4 capacity are fully operational: GNL, and the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton Montana.

The new Integrated Research Facility, located near the Army’s high-security research facility at Fort Detrick in Frederick Maryland, is configured for BSL-4 experiments but currently has only BSL-2 capacity. The future of NEIDL remains in doubt; although BU is hoping to move its existing BSL-3 research into the facility, they have not yet received approval.

Fortunately NIAID is not the only source of government funding for biodefense research; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a number of BSL-4s running, including those in its 7-year-old, $217 million “Building 18” which houses the Viral Special Pathogens Branch (VSPB) where scientists work with the likes of Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Rift Valley, Nipah and Hendra viruses. However, CDC’s definition of a BSL4 -laboratory is unclear — is it a room or a suite or a floor? Thus, how many BSL-4s CDC actually has is difficult to estimate.

At present, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are operating a large number of BSL-3 laboratories, but so far no BSL-4s. DHS is hoping to replace their aging Plum Island facility in Long Island, New York, with new laboratories in Manhattan, Kansas that include a BSL-4 suitable for large animal research. That plan has stalled because of considerable community opposition. Apparently Kansas State University, which would run it, is as distrusted by its neighbors as Boston University.

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