U.S. biodefense campus set for Fort Detrick

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three federal agencies plan to build adjoining high-security laboratories at Fort Detrick for a total cost of more than $1 billion, creating a "national biodefense campus" where scientists will collaborate in the battle against bioterrorism.

The plan would create three new labs in Frederick operated by the Army, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health - and possibly a fourth lab for the U.S. Department of Agriculture - all equipped to handle the most dangerous pathogens in existence.

Federal officials have been meeting quietly for more than a year to plan the biodefense campus, part of a national boom in bioterrorism research in the wake of the Sept. 11 aircraft hijackings and the anthrax attacks of 2001.

The federal biodefense research budget has ballooned from $305 million in 2001 to nearly $4 billion this year, by one official's estimate.

Some public health experts call the proliferation of high-security labs wasteful and say they steal funding from problems more serious than bioterrorism. But federal officials insist all the new labs planned for the biodefense campus are necessary.

"It's a national asset being put together in an area where there's currently a strategic shortfall," said Army Col. John E. Ball, garrison commander at Fort Detrick, who is coordinating construction of the campus.

Building multiple labs within walking distance will not create redundancy but might save money, Ball said: "Because you can share, you can spend less on security, roads, parking, cafeteria, library and other things."

"We'll get a lot of synergy from being on the same campus," said Maureen I. McCarthy, director of research and development for the Department of Homeland Security. "The science may be similar. But we're three different agencies with different mission requirements."

The biodefense campus is an economic prize for Frederick County, bringing lucrative construction contracts and the promise of hundreds of highly paid jobs for scientists and support staff.

And, because Fort Detrick has handled dangerous germs since World War II, most neighbors are not worried about possible expansion, said Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, who supports the plan.

"As long as Fort Detrick continues to be as proactive as it has been in the community and with its neighbors, I don't anticipate any issues," she said.

But critics say biodefense expansion has become a boondoggle for government agencies and universities that are cashing in on fear. They note that only five people died as a result of the biggest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history, the anthrax letters.

And in that case, FBI investigators appear to believe the perpetrator was not a foreign terrorist but an American with ties to Fort Detrick or other U.S. biodefense labs.

"Influenza kills annually about 50,000 people in this country," said Milton Leitenberg, an expert on biowarfare at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies. "But we don't put our money into that.

"We sink it into bioterrorism. We're putting billions of dollars into a putative threat of disputed relevance at a time when there's a shortage of flu vaccine and measles vaccine."

Dr. David M. Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, also questioned government priorities.

"Bioterrorism is hollowing out public health from within," said Ozonoff. "It's much more likely that bird flu will kill millions of people than anthrax," he added, referring to the possibility that an avian flu strain in Asia could spread among humans.

Rutgers University biochemist Richard H. Ebright said consolidating high-security research at Fort Detrick makes some sense.

But he noted that other federally funded Biosafety Level 4 labs are approved for Boston University, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. On top of those, he said, the Detrick campus would create "an enormous overcapacity."

"If they proceed with this plan at Detrick, they should cancel Hamilton, Boston and Galveston," Ebright said.

The plan for the National Interagency Biodefense Campus illustrates vividly how the terror attacks of 2001 have transformed funding for biodefense.

Before 2001, the Army's biodefense research center, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, had little competition in research on exotic diseases that might be used as weapons. Nor was there much interest - post-Cold War budget cuts in the mid-1990s forced the Army to reduce the institute's staffing by 25 percent.

But things began to pick up in 1998, after former President Bill Clinton read The Cobra Event, a thriller by Richard Preston about a fictional bioattack, and became convinced that the threat was real.

That was the year that Dr. Donald A. Henderson, leader of the worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox, opened the first university biodefense think tank at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

But only after the 2001 attacks did the funding spigots open. Dozens of universities have rushed to create bioterrorism research centers to compete for the new money. A variety of federal agencies have also taken a new interest in germs.

The Detrick campus plan, as described by federal officials, will include:

Army: A replacement for the aging Army biodefense unit at Fort Detrick, known as USAMRIID, estimated to cost $850 million to $1 billion. A congressional report has acknowledged that a new facility is needed, but the project has not yet been funded. USAMRIID's mission is to study diseases that threaten U.S. troops, including those resulting from deliberate attack.

National Institutes of Health: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease will break ground this year on a $105 million Integrated Research Facility, where animals will be used to study the exotic diseases likely to be used for biological attack.

Dr. Mary E. Wright, chief of the clinical biodefense research branch at NIAID, said the lab will take "a medical approach," using animals to develop standards for diagnosis and treatment. "There was no research on these microorganisms for many, many years," Wright said.

Department of Homeland Security: The $120 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Center will work chiefly on "threat characterization" - understanding what organisms, in natural or bioengineered form, pose a terrorist threat.

In addition, a bioforensics unit will study how scientists can use genetic or chemical analysis to trace germs to their source, as FBI scientists are trying to do with the mailed anthrax of 2001. The new lab will create databases and other computer tools to be consulted in case of an attack.

Department of Agriculture: USDA and the Department of Defense are studying a possible lab to research zoonotic diseases, which pass from animals to humans. Although Fort Detrick officials have assigned space on the campus, no final decision on construction has been made, said Caird Rexroad, acting associate administrator of the Agricultural Research Service.

National Cancer Institute: NCI's existing facility at Fort Detrick would be considered part of the campus, sharing its expertise on cancer and HIV with researchers working directly on bioterrorism, said Col. Ball.

Gateway Center: A separate building housing a library, cafeteria, security offices and other shared facilities. The cost has not been estimated, Ball said.

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