NIAID funds 11 new biodefense labs

Oct 1, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – Federal health officials yesterday announced grants to build 11 new biodefense laboratories around the country, including two that will be authorized to study the most dangerous pathogens.

Boston University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston each will receive about $120 million to build biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs, which can handle the deadliest agents, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced. The NIAID calls the two projects National Biocontainment Laboratories (NBLs).

In addition, the agency announced grants of between $7 million and $21 million each for nine "Regional Biocontainment Laboratories," which will include BSL-3 and BSL-2 space. Those facilities will be at Colorado State University, Fort Collins; Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Tulane University, New Orleans; the University of Alabama at Birmingham; the University of Chicago, Argonne, Ill.; the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark; the University of Missouri, Columbia; the University of Pittsburgh; and the University of Tennessee, Memphis.

In a news release, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson called the lab grants "a major step towards being able to provide Americans with effective therapies, vaccines, and diagnostics for diseases caused by agents of bioterror as well as for naturally occurring emerging infections such as SARS and West Nile virus."

The two NBLs will join only three BSL-4 labs currently operating in the United States. Those are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Tex.

The lab grants stem from a recommendation by a committee of outside experts who advised the NIAID on its biodefense research plans in Feburary 2002, the NIAID said. The group listed the shortage of BSL-3 and BSL-4 lab space as a significant barrier to progress.

The agency had received seven applications for the NBL grants and 25 applications for the regional lab grants, NIAID spokeswoman Linda Joy told CIDRAP News. The sites were chosen on the basis of "the scientific and technical merit of the application as assessed by peer review and on the applicant's ability to contribute to the overall NIAID research agenda," the news release stated.

Rona Hirschberg, a NIAID senior program officer, estimated it will take "the better part of 5 years" to get the two national biosafety labs up and running. The first of the regional labs should be ready in about 3 years, she told CIDRAP News. "Everybody will be pushing as hard as they can, because we really need them," she said.

Hirschberg said the two national labs will be large facilities but didn't know how many researchers they will accommodate. A news release from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) said the NBL there will have 83,000 square feet of space, including 13,000 square feet of BSL-4 space. The statement noted that UTMB will be commissioning a smaller BSL-4 lab, the first to be built on a university campus in the United States, later this fall. Construction of the national lab is scheduled to start in 2006 at a site next to the smaller BSL-4 lab, officials said.

The NIAID said the 11 new labs will "complement and support" the research conducted at the NIAID's recently designated Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. Two of the institutions receiving the lab grants are also among the centers of excellence: UTMB and Duke University.

According to a NIAID fact sheet, BSL-4 labs can handle pathogens that pose a high risk of causing a life-threatening disease for which there is no vaccine or treatment, such as Ebola virus. BSL-3 labs can study agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal diseases and can spread through respiratory droplets; examples include the pathogens that cause tuberculosis and Q fever.

The plan for the BSL-4 lab in Boston has generated opposition from neighbors, according to an Associated Press report published yesterday. A group called Alternatives for the Community and Environment promised to keep fighting the project, the report said.

See also:

NIAID news release

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