Army breaks ground for new biodefense lab

 Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. military’s flagship biological defense agency broke ground Thursday on a $680 million headquarters building designed for expanded Army research on the world’s deadliest pathogens.

The new home of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick is scheduled to open in May 2014. When fully staffed by the end of 2015, it will house as many as 952 scientists, technicians and administrators, up from about 800 working now in crowded facilities built in the 1960s.

Officials said the new USAMRIID will feature the latest in biocontainment technology to prevent accidental releases of dangerous organisms such as anthrax, the plague bacteria and the Ebola virus. Bio-Safety Level 4 lab space, reserved for the most lethal organisms, will grow by nearly 80 percent to 17,000 square feet.

Although their primary mission is developing vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools for soldiers on the battlefield, scientists in the five-story, 800,000-square-foot structure will share their discoveries with neighboring labs operated by the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Health and Human Services, comprising an interagency biodefense campus at Fort Detrick.

“We can’t support our fighting force if we don’t protect the whole nation,” said the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker.

He said USAMRIID researchers have been involved in the fight against the West Nile virus, SARS, the avian flu and the swine flu.

The groundbreaking comes as an elite panel of scientists is set to consider whether project planners have adequately prepared for the possible release of germs, either accidentally or through the actions of a terrorist or disgruntled scientist.

Fort Detrick is surrounded by homes and businesses within the city limits of Frederick, a community of 59,000 about 50 miles from both Washington and Baltimore.

A USAMRIID scientist, Bruce Ivins, was identified last year by the FBI as the lone perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others. Ivins died of an apparent suicide in July 2008.

Bruce Ivins

Bruce Ivins

The National Research Council review is set to begin next month. It was sought by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., at the request of Frederick County and citizens who alleged shortcomings in the risk-assessment portion of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement.

Similar concerns have delayed the opening of a biological laboratory at Boston University, and threaten to slow construction of Homeland Security’s planned National Bio and Agro-Defense lab in Manhattan, Kan.

The Army contends that tightened security at USAMRIID since 2001 has minimized the possibility of a pathogen release.

The Army also says it has studied the potential threat to public health of terrorist attacks on the lab, but cannot disclose details without tipping off enemies to the post’s security measures.

Fort Detrick critic Beth Willis, a leader of Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety, said it was “unfortunate” that the Army broke ground before the health-and-safety review even began.

However, the county commissioners said in requesting the review that they didn’t intend to delay construction of the new lab.

A Mikulski aide said the senator is confident there will be ample opportunity for USAMRIID and the community to act on any recommendations the National Research Council makes when it issues its report next spring.