- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

At least two of the approximately 10 laboratories the federal government plans to build to counter risks of terrorists unleashing deadly diseases will be in the Washington area.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is building the labs under a biological warfare defense budget that is six times greater than a year ago, or $1.8 billion this year.

Some residents near the proposed labs are concerned the world's most deadly microbes could creep into their homes. Officials for the laboratories say the concerns are unfounded.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the risks to the community are "vanishingly little if any. The whole purpose of the containment is to protect the facility as well as the community. There's very little if any risk."

One of the labs is planned for the NIH campus in Bethesda on Rockville Pike, Route 355. Another will share facilities with the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

The Bethesda laboratory will be a BioSafety Level 3 facility, which requires precautions such as containment of air flow and monitoring everything entering the area that could be contaminated.

The Fort Detrick laboratory will be a BioSafety Level 4 facility, which represents the greatest hazard level. Dr. Fauci describes Level 4 as an area "where people essentially walk around in space suits."

Another BioSafety Level 4 laboratory will be built at Rocky Mountain, Mont. About seven more are planned but their locations and biosafety levels have not been determined, Dr. Fauci said.

The laboratories will study methods for defending against deadly microbes rather than how to make them, which is another reason the risk to the community is small, Dr. Fauci said.

"This is study of biodefense, developing vaccines, developing drugs," he said." We're not manufacturing bioweapons, we're doing research to study biodefense. That's a misperception in the community when they think of the danger."

Nevertheless, some Bethesda residents say unforeseen risks create hidden dangers.

"So what happens if somebody blows up a lab or something," said Michelle Radcliffe, a Bethesda resident who lives near NIH. "Before 9/11 something like this would have been such a long shot. But since then, people worry about these things."

Said Ed Stern, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration program analyst and resident of the NIH neighborhood, "Such a laboratory is a target that invites danger to NIH and to the community."

The Bethesda laboratory has been planned since the mid-1990s. However, the federal government has expanded its biodefense efforts in recent months, including plans for the national network of laboratories.

Plans for the Frederick laboratory were announced last month.

The September 11 terrorist attacks prompted NIH to build a 9-foot-high metal fence around its 322-acre campus. It will have an ornamental design but be strong enough to prevent intrusions by people or vehicles.

"It's not a fence intended to stop a big, heavy vehicle," Mr. Stern said.

Allen Myers, president of the Maplewood Citizens Association, a group of residents near NIH, said the environmental impact study for the Bethesda laboratory was completed in the mid-1990s.

"It certainly can't consider what exists today," Mr. Myers said.

Terrorists could fire a missile at the laboratory from Rockville Pike, he said.

"If someone has some sort of device that they would want to shoot at it, they certainly could," said Mr. Myers, a Federal Communications Commission employee.

The Maplewood Citizens Association plans to meet with NIH representatives Nov. 20 to discuss their concerns.

NIH officials say they are taking adequate precautions against terrorism. In addition to the protective fence, access points are guarded and surveillance cameras are in strategic locations.

"This building would not be anymore a terrorist target than any other building at NIH," spokesman Don Ralbovsky said.

Local officials say the economic benefits outweigh the terrorism risks.

Federal safety regulations are strong enough to stop any release of deadly microbes, said Scott Sloat, spokesman for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

"We're not concerned about that," he said. "It's just like any other biotech project. From an economic standpoint, we're always looking for new biotech research projects."

Bethesda lies at the south end of the I-270 Technology Corridor, which is lined with biotech companies such as Celera Genomics Group, Human Genome Sciences, EntreMed and Gene Logic.

Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty expressed similar confidence in federal regulators.

"I do believe they have very good scientific restrictions on where the very dangerous microbes can be," Miss Dougherty said.

The greatest risk if terrorists detonated a bomb in or near the biodefense laboratory would be the explosion rather than the health threat, she said. Nevertheless, some residents are worried.

"It is a little controversial here," she said.

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