FREDERICK, Md. (AP)| The Department of Homeland Security’s new laboratory building, with its curved exterior, 10-inch-thick walls and chemical showers, resembles a battleship being readied for war against biological weapons.
The state-of-the-art structure is “an incredible demonstration of what we can do when we’re challenged, when we’re threatened,” Under Secretary Jay M. Cohen said Wednesday at a ceremony dedicating the $143 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center.
The building, with 50,000 square feet of high-security lab space, is part of a biodefense campus taking shape at Fort Detrick, already home to the military’s top germ research facility. The campus, with its own security perimeter, will include new laboratories run by the Army and the National Institutes of Health.
When it opens next spring, the Homeland Security lab and its 140 scientists and technicians will give the government new tools for predicting biological attacks and identifying perpetrators of “biocrimes.” It will provide the FBI with a forensic capability it lacked after the 2001 anthrax mailings, which killed five people. Instead, investigators relied on the expertise of Army and university scientists in that case.
In August, the FBI revealed it had concluded that mentally ill Army biodefense researcher Bruce E. Ivins, who worked at Fort Detrick, was solely responsible for the anthrax episode, the country’s deadliest biological attack. Mr. Ivins died of apparent suicide in July after learning he would likely be charged in the attacks. He wasn’t mentioned during Wednesday’s ceremony, and only two speakers referred to the anthrax attacks.
Some nearby residents have said they fear the facility will become a target for terrorists. And some critics wanted assurances that the lab would be used only to find antidotes for germ warfare, not create more bioweapons.
The building’s internal-security measures are still being worked out, said Patrick Fitch, laboratory director and president of Battelle National Biodefense Institute, which has a $250 million, five-year contract to run the lab. BNBI is a unit of Battelle Memorial Institute, of Columbus, Ohio.
Mr. Fitch said he has recommended that video cameras — monitored by a separate command unit — watch workers in Biosafety Level-4 labs, which are reserved for the deadliest pathogens. Video surveillance would be used to a lesser extent in BSL-3 labs, which comprise 80 percent of the research space.
Mr. Fitch said the draft security plan he submitted to Homeland Security doesn’t recommended a “two-person” rule, which would require scientists to double up in the lab. Such a measure was vigorously debated in the research community after the FBI revealed that Mr. Ivins had spent a lot of time alone in his lab at night shortly before the anthrax attacks.