New state public health lab set to open in fall

The state lab responsible for confirming and tracking epidemics of dangerous pathogens, infectious diseases and bioterrorism agents will move this fall from a facility dating to the Nixon administration to a new one that is the latest addition to a massive East Baltimore revitalization effort.

The $170 million building amid the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins will grow by nearly seven times the amount of space in which state public health scientists can safely handle agents including SARS, rabies, chikungunya and West Nile virus, officials said. It also will provide improved air flow and heating and cooling, important for lab safety.

A host of dignitaries celebrated the new facility in a ribbon-cutting Tuesday, saying it represents another step in an effort to create jobs and promote commercialized medical research in an area just north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus. The area's controversial development, which displaced some longtime residents and blocks of vacant houses and drug activity, recently marked openings of a new community school and a Walgreens pharmacy.

"I can't think of a better place for this lab at this time," said state health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein. "There is essentially no public health challenge we won't be able to grapple with in this lab."

Gov. Martin O'Malley said the building's construction was a feat, given how far-fetched the idea of the East Baltimore development was 15 years ago when he was mayor of Baltimore.

"We wondered if any of us would be alive to see the progress we see today," O'Malley said, recalling a visit to the area at the time.

The 234,000-square-foot Public Health Lab replaces an aged facility in the State Center complex in West Baltimore. While the two facilities are comparable in size, the new facility is designed with more open lab space, efficient heating and cooling and centralized support services, like a single area for receiving specimens to be studied, said Robert Myers, director of the state health department's laboratories administration.

The new facility expands from 2,500 square feet to 17,000 square feet the amount of space capable of handling agents considered Biosafety Level 3, a level that includes potentially deadly pathogens that cause illnesses that can be treated.

The state first committed to the project financially in 2010, spending $6.45 million on design work. The rest of the money for the project came from Maryland Economic Development Corp. bonds, backed by lease payments the state health department will make. The facility originally was expected to open in September 2013.

The public health lab's 212 employees will move into the facility once a commissioning phase is completed, ensuring that the labs and building systems are working as designed, Myers said.

No decisions have been made about reuse of the old lab, which will be determined during later phases of the redevelopment of State Center, according to the state Department of General Services.

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