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Sunday, August 22, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
Fear follows plan to build more deadly-disease labs
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer


   Boston -- Klare Allen leaned against her rusty pickup truck and 
watched
the wind break off tiny bits of ash from her smoldering cigarette,
carrying them across a giant parking lot in the south Boston district 
of
Roxbury.
   Now, the parking lot is no more than a swath of concrete tucked 
between a
busy expressway, a medical school, a state prison and a densely 
populated
residential neighborhood.
   If the U.S. government has its way, the parking lot will be home to 
a
biosafety Level 4 -- or maximum security -- laboratory, where 
scientists
will study the deadliest pathogens in the world, such as anthrax, 
smallpox
and the Ebola virus.
   U.S. Department of Health officials say the planned National 
Emerging
Infectious Diseases Laboratories at Boston University is critical to
America's war on terror. Allen is afraid that the wind that carries 
ashes
from her cigarette may blow lethal viruses into the neighborhood where 
she
lives.
   "All I need to hear is 'anthrax -- Roxbury.' 'Ebola -- Roxbury.' 
'Smallpox
-- Roxbury,' " said Allen, a mother of four and organizer for a Roxbury
environmental group. "I understand that science is very important. But 
you
are bringing terrorism stuff here."
   Her fears are emblematic of a larger debate over the place of 
scientific
research in the post-Sept. 11 era of international terrorism and 
weapons
of mass destruction.
   Such opposition surfaced when UC Davis applied to the National 
Institutes
of Health to build a similar Level 4 lab. In February 2003, the City
Council voted unanimously to oppose the lab, saying the proposal was 
too
divisive. The Davis plan was turned down by the NIH in October.
   Officials say the high-efficiency filtration system and 
state-of-the-art
security at the Boston lab will make it virtually unassailable and 
safe.
But critics, including numerous scientists across the country, say no
technology can eliminate the threat of human error, accident or 
terrorist
attack.
   "The question is whether to do things that carry risk," said Jeffrey 
Kahn,
director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
   While there are hundreds of Level 3 labs in hospitals and 
universities
throughout the country, carrying out research on dangerous pathogens 
such
as anthrax, botulism and the plague, Level 4 labs carry a heightened 
risk
because only they are empowered to study biological agents, including
Ebola, with no known antidote or vaccine.
   Terrorists allied with groups such as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda 
network
have said in intercepted messages and on Islamic Web sites that they 
were
considering using biological weapons against the United States. The 
Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist strikes and subsequent anthrax attacks prompted the
Bush administration to push for intensified research on potential
biological weapons.
   "To know that we can do this research and not do it would be
irresponsible," said Rona Hirschberg, a senior program officer at the 
NIH.
   The biodefense budget of Hirschberg's agency, the arm of the 
Department of
Health and Human Services that oversees such research, soared from $53
million in 2001 to $1.6 billion in 2004. Last fall, it assigned two new
major Level 4 labs to be built in Boston and Galveston, Texas, in 
addition
to six Level 4 labs that already exist across the country, to study and
develop vaccines against the world's most dangerous viruses. The new
facilities, each costing nearly $200 million, should be up and running 
in
three years.
   "There are people out there who are interested in using biological 
agents
against us, and we have to be prepared as best we can to face those
threats. We don't have in place at this time all the research that has 
to
be done to be protected," said Hirschberg, who picked the locations for
the new labs.
   But Patricia Hynes, professor of environmental health at Boston
University, said that such labs, and the kind of research they 
undertake,
only increase the target opportunities for terrorists.
   "Take the atomic bomb," Hynes said. "What we developed has 
proliferated,
and now we are afraid it might end up in the hands of terrorists -- and
there is no reason to believe the same doesn't happen to these agents."
   Lola Vollen, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, said that the 
creation of
such labs in the era of genetic engineering is pointless because
terrorists "can now create organisms that you cannot predict."
   "Smallpox vaccine is only going to be effective if there's a 
smallpox
attack, but you can't predict what pathogen is going to be released," 
she
said.
   Vollen said she was concerned that scientists with experience in the
proliferating Level 4 labs could be hired by terrorists.
   "What happens with the knowledge that we've trained when these 
people are
decommissioned, or when they go elsewhere?" said Vollen, a critic of 
U.S.
biodefense efforts.
   Mark Klempner, a provost at Boston University Medical Center who 
will
direct the Boston lab, and Kevin Tuohey, Boston University Medical
Center's public safety chief, said the lab would have a sophisticated,
multilevel security system designed to prevent break-ins or theft of
agents, as well as accidental dissemination of deadly viruses.
   "There's been a need for these new labs for quite a while," Klempner 
said.
"This is a very high priority."
   The Level 4 lab will be located deep inside a seven-story building 
of
compressed concrete and stainless steel and will take up only 15 
percent
of the building. Negative pressure will prevent particles from floating
out of the laboratory, and air filters will pressure-cook the lab's air
before it leaves the building, Tuohey said. Lab workers will have to go
through multiple checkpoints, explosives detectors, metal detectors and
iris scans before they are allowed into the laboratory.
   "It does sound like a movie," Klempner said.
   But accidents do happen. In February, a researcher at Fort Detrick, 
a
Defense Department Level 4 facility in Frederick, Md., was quarantined 
for
three weeks after she accidentally pricked herself with a needle that
contained Ebola virus while experimenting on mice. She exhibited no 
signs
of the disease. Another researcher at the same facility tested positive 
in
2002 for exposure to anthrax spores, which were released into an 
adjacent
hallway and office.
   In 2003, a parcel from the Ohio Department of Health containing bird
innards infected with West Nile virus exploded at a Federal Express 
depot,
scattering infected bird brain matter.
   "I don't know that anybody can really tell us how safe or how risky 
these
places really are," said Kahn of the University of Minnesota.
   For Allen, who has organized a neighborhood group called Safety Net, 
it is
too much of a gamble. She has plastered the neighborhood with leaflets
that call the planned facility a "bioterror" lab and warn: "You could 
die
and not know why!"
   As a result of her campaign, alarm has spread among the residents of
Roxbury, an impoverished, crowded neighborhood of more than 55,000 
people,
where residents often relax on the narrow front steps of their tiny
pastel- colored houses.
   "I don't think it's a good idea to build something like that in the 
middle
of the community," said Aidee Pomales, assistant coordinator of a
community center that runs summer and after-school programs for 
children
three blocks from the proposed lab site.
   "We're going through a difficult time in this day and age. There are
terrorists who want to hurt us," Pomales said. "But maybe the lab 
should
be built in a desert somewhere."

Biosafety network
   The federal government is building a network of maximum security, or 
Level
4, biosafety laboratories. It has approved plans for labs in Boston and
Galveston, which would join six other Level 4 labs located at:
   -- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
   -- U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, 
Fort
Detrick, Frederick, Md.
   -- National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.
   -- University of Texas, Galveston
   -- Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, San Antonio
   -- Georgia State University, Atlanta

Classifying labs' hazard levels
   To oversee research on dangerous disease-causing agents, the 
National
Institutes of Health sets conditions for laboratories at various 
levels,
depending on the hazards involved.
   Biosafety Level 1
   -- Used for bioagents not known to consistently cause disease in 
healthy
adults.
   -- Standard microbiological laboratory practices and controls are 
employed
and tailored to the specific work to be conducted. For example, work on
open benchtops that are easily cleaned and impervious to water. Use of 
lab
coats, safety glasses and gloves is recommended.
   -- Where they are located: High school or college labs and research
institutions.
   Biosafety Level 2
   -- Used for a broad spectrum of bioagents present in the community 
and
associated with human disease of moderate severity. Examples include
hepatitis B virus, measles and salmonella.
   -- Limited access separated from public areas with a posted BSL-2
biohazard sign on lockable doors. BSL-1 practices and controls plus
enhanced microbiological practices that are identified before work 
begins.
   -- Where they are located: Research institutions, essentially all
hospitals and medical and veterinary schools, dental offices and 
medical
laboratories.
   Biosafety Level 3
   -- Used for bioagents with potential for aerosol transmission that 
may
cause serious or potentially lethal disease by inhalation if left
untreated. An example is Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
   -- Workers are immunized for agents handled or potentially present. 
There
are vaccines and therapies available.
   -- Biosafety Level 2 practices and controls plus controlled access 
with a
posted BSL-3 biohazard sign, and appropriate biological safety 
cabinets,
such as those with controlled airflow or those that are totally 
enclosed.
Workers use protective lab clothing, eye and face protection, gloves 
and
respiratory protection as needed.
   -- Materials being removed are sterilized by heat and pressurized 
steam;
all waste is disinfected and disposed of according to local, state and
federal regulations.
   -- Where they are located: Biological research institutions, 
hospitals and
medical and veterinary schools.
   Biosafety Level 4
   -- This is the highest level of containment for biological organisms 
and
is used for dangerous and exotic bioagents that pose a high risk of 
life-
threatening disease and for which there is no available vaccine or
therapy. An example is Ebola virus.
   -- Work is performed in full-body, air-supplied, positive pressure
personnel suits or totally enclosed airtight biological safety cabinets
called gloveboxes.
   -- The facility is a separate building or isolated area within a 
building,
with an interlocked double door entry, BSL-4 biohazard warning signs
posted on all doors, and dedicated air supply, exhaust, vacuum and
decontamination systems.
   Source: Bioscience and Health Research at Lawrence Livermore 
National
Laboratory
   E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com.