Last month, the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease (NIAID) announced $125 million in planned funding for the construction of five to eight Regional Biocontainment Laboratories. These facilities would provide safe spaces in which to research dangerous bacteria and viruses, particularly those considered likely to be used as bioterror agents. The labs are just one part of a torrent of biodefense spending that has surged since anthrax letter-attacks killed five people in 2001.But voices are now starting to be heard above the fear-induced din that this spending may not be the wisest use of the country’s biotechnology resources.
New lab space has become a particular target for biodefense critics. If funded, the new labs would supplement two National Biocontainment Laboratories and nine other regional labs, as well as eight Regional Centers of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. The two national labs, to be built at Boston University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, would have containment areas providing the highest level of physical and biological containment-meeting criteria known as Biosafety Level-4, or BSL-4. Such BSL-4 facilities are reserved for research on diseases, such as Ebola, for which there are neither vaccines nor treatments. The regional labs would meet the less stringent BSL-2 and BSL-3 safety standards. In addition to these spaces, NIAID is planning to build two BSL-4 labs for its employees, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, the Army, and possibly the U.S. Department of Agriculture all have plans to build additional BSL-4 lab space.
“It’s hard to say that this is a bad thing,” says Stephanie Loranger, biology issues director for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to the responsible use of science and technology. “Any amount of research into infectious diseases helps us understand these diseases and helps the public health community.” But, she adds, “it’s difficult to know how many [labs] is enough or how many is too many.” Concerns include the ongoing expense of maintaining and running the specialized labs, as well as security, given the proliferation of locations for, and people who have access to, agents that can be used as weapons.
Many believe the additional labs are necessary, though. “We’re not overdoing the BSL-4 lab space,” says C. J. Peters, a noted virologist who has worked in BSL-4 labs at both the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and the CDC, and who now runs a BSL-4 for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Peters notes that the Department of Defense and CDC labs have different missions than the planned National Biocontainment Laboratories, focusing on vaccine research and disease outbreak response, respectively. “We’re playing catch up,” in terms of basic knowledge about diseases like Ebola and SARS, he says. “To have additional BSL-4 space over and above DoD and CDC is extremely important.”