Is it safe?

UC Davis officials want to build a biosafety-level-4 lab, but some scientists and experts aren’t so sure it’s a great idea

UC Davis Provost Virgnia Hinshaw, pictured in the bowels of one of the school’s high-tech labs for dangerous pathogens, is leading an effort to build a new national biocontainment lab to study the world’s deadliest agents.

UC Davis Provost Virgnia Hinshaw, pictured in the bowels of one of the school’s high-tech labs for dangerous pathogens, is leading an effort to build a new national biocontainment lab to study the world’s deadliest agents.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Biosafety level 4 is the classification given to the handful of laboratories in the world where researchers can safely handle the planet’s deadliest pathogens, things like: Ebola virus, Hantavirus, Marburgh virus and Smallpox. Biosafety level 4 is the highest classification; even anthrax spores can be studied in labs that fall into the second-to-highest classification, biosafety level 3. Level-4 labs, which feature airtight rooms and ultra-fine air- and water-filtration systems, are designed from the ground up to contain dangerous microbes.

There are just three level-4 labs in the United States, but under a new federal program to build several more labs, UC Davis could be in line to land the first one on the West Coast—along with the river of federal money that would flow into it. After the post-September 11 anthrax attacks killed five people and nearly brought the country to a paranoid standstill, Congress earmarked more than $6 billion for biosafety programs. UC Davis is preparing an application to the National Institutes of Health, which will cover 75 percent of the cost of building a new national laboratory. The price tag will run close to $200 million, and UC Davis officials hope to split the remainder of that with the state and other funding sources.

For the few people allowed into level-4 labs, which are now under even tighter access controls determined by the U.S. Department of Justice, the routine of entering the secure environment is somewhat like suiting up for a spacewalk. Prior to any lab work, researchers are immunized for whatever agents are kept in the lab and are trained in emergency procedures. Before entering, they sign a logbook, remove all of their clothes, including underwear, change into lab clothing and put on a sealed bunny suit. Anything they want to bring in goes through a double-locked airlock. The scientists themselves enter through an airtight chamber. Inside the lab, the air is kept under negative air pressure to ensure that pathogens don’t flow out, and ventilation systems are alarmed in case of a malfunction. The bunny suit the researchers wear plugs into a life-support system that keeps them under positive air pressure, so pathogens don’t flow in. When the researchers leave, they shower while still wearing the bunny suit, remove the suit, remove the lab clothing, shower again, get dressed and sign the logbook on their way out.

If the UC Davis bid wins, the level-4 lab would be the only one on the West Coast. The only existing full-scale level-4 labs are at NIH in Bethesda, Md.; the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta; and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (commonly called USAMRIID), at Fort Detrick, Md. A smaller lab is under construction at a University of Texas campus in Galveston, Texas. Canada recently opened its first level-4 lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

UC Davis Provost Virginia Hinshaw, who is also a virology expert, said the lab’s role would be to create new vaccines and develop a better understanding of how to prevent disease by studying the organisms that spread them. The federal government would control what kind of work would be done in the lab, which the school is calling the Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases.

Though school officials say landing a national biocontainment laboratory would be a major coup for both the school and the West Coast, it would be part of a general proliferation of labs and germs that worries some scientists and experts.

One of those skeptics is UC Davis microbiology professor Mark Wheelis, one of the country’s top bioweapons experts. In the January issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Wheelis writes that the United States has turned its back on an international bioweapons agreement because it is working on developing its own “killer germs.” Wheelis, who wasn’t available for comment, is referring to the Bush administration’s recent decision to block a new agreement that would strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. It prohibits the development and production of bioweapons. The State Department pulled out of the talks in July.

Part of the problem, say biocontainment-lab observers like Edward Hammond of the Austin, Texas-based Sunshine Project, is that building more labs means “we’re going to teach hundreds if not thousands of people how to wage bio-war. So, the question is: Are we sowing the seeds of future domestic terrorism?” The FBI still has no suspect in the anthrax mailings, but the only figure close to being a suspect is Dr. Steven Hatfill, a former researcher at USAMRIID and the one whom the Justice Department has labeled a “person of interest” in the case. The labs, Hammond added, also could become targets for theft or destruction, and each new franchise increases the odds of some kind of mishap. “An accidental release is very unlikely, but you have to bear in mind that we’re going to be building a number of [level-3 and level-4] facilities. It’s probably going to happen sooner or later,” he said.

The UC Davis plan is likely to generate plenty of local controversy as it comes closer to becoming a reality. Opponents recently delayed construction of a level-4 lab the NIH wants to build in Hamilton, Mont., by winning a bid to require more extensive environmental reviews. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico faces a lawsuit over a level-3 lab proposed there. The city of Davis won’t have much say in approving UC Davis’ lab, but the school has been working with city officials to help plan the application to NIH.

As part of the effort to land the bid, UC Davis is planning a six-month public-relations campaign, emphasizing safety and security, to get out its message about what the lab would do.

With the newest biocontainment labs—built something like high-tech Russian dolls, each level inside another level—safety is incredibly refined. Even critics of the labs say it’s highly unlikely that microscopic pathogens would leak into the surrounding community. A level-4 lab is hardly the kind of place where someone would leave open a screen door and let a cloud of anthrax or Ebola blow across the campus.

But, at the same time, high-level containment labs don’t have a spotless safety record. In April, the Army confirmed that anthrax spores had turned up in a hallway and locker room at USAMRIID. A few days later, in a second embarrassing incident, non-lethal spores used for vaccine research turned up in another part of the complex. The Army tested 35 people, including workers at an off-base laundry facility. Nobody tested positive for exposure except for a scientist who had been vaccinated. The Army blamed the leak on someone’s failure to follow safety procedures. On December 15, workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s infectious-disease lab at Plum Island, N.Y., scrambled to seal doors with duct tape after the facility lost power. The lights went out at the high-security Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which stores dangerous animal diseases like foot and mouth disease, after a power failure and subsequent failure of backup generators (the lab was being run by replacement workers during a strike).

Though top scientists warn that the increasing number of labs built around dangerous pathogens will increase the likelihood of some kind of release—either accidental or intentional—Hinshaw chuckled when asked about safety concerns. “These are probably the most thoroughly tested facilities that exist, and it’s all designed to make sure that you have an extremely safe building with fail-safe things built in,” she said.

Hinshaw added that having the lab nearby would be a major asset in case of any kind of bioweapons attack or disease outbreak in the Sacramento area. “Actually, increasing the number of people who are trained will increase our safety,” she said. “The challenge is we need to educate people about the threats and how to deal with public-health threats effectively, and that includes working in facilities that can accommodate those kinds of organisms without endangering anybody.”

The lab won’t be doing any kind of weapons work, Hinshaw said. “The purpose is research and public health.”

UC Davis will submit two applications, one this month and one next month, and the NIH is expected to announce a winner sometime in late summer or early fall. If Davis wins the lab—something that’s said to be highly likely—construction will take three to four years, Hinshaw said. She said the school is uniquely qualified to land the new lab because it already has strong programs in veterinary, medical, environmental and agricultural sciences as well as one of eight primate research centers in the country.

The state Department of Health Services and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are working as partners with UC Davis on the bid for the lab. Another application, which would create a research institute at the lab, has UC Davis as the lead partner with most of the other major research institutions in the state, including Stanford, Scripps and most of the other UC campuses.

Lawrence Livermore’s involvement troubles Marylia Kelley, who runs Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment, a small nonprofit that monitors the national laboratory there. Kelley said she’s concerned that the spread of biocontainment labs raises the stakes.

“What’s happening right now is a multiagency building boom of new and upgraded [level-3 and level-4] facilities. What this will do is proliferate potential biowarfare agents and the knowledge to use them. By having a whole new set of players come into the bioagent field, there may be a higher degree of possibility of mishaps, and a [level-4] facility would handle the most deadly pathogens known to humanity.”

And, after years of monitoring Lawrence Livermore, Kelley said she doesn’t buy assurances of safety at new labs. “Every single facility when it’s built is proclaimed to be safe. I’ve yet to hear of any agency that says it will build an unsafe facility,” she said.

She’s not wild about the way Congress dashed off a $6 billion check, either. Her organization is one of eight, including the Sunshine Project, that’s asking the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, to take a look at whether the country really needs up to a dozen new biocontainment labs—and whether such labs would make the country less safe or more safe.

Though Lawrence Livermore is hoping to work with UC Davis if the new lab is built there, Lawrence Livermore is also building a level-3 lab of its own.

Watchdogs like Kelley say they’re most worried that Lawrence Livermore wants to study potential biowarfare agents in a classified environment in which nuclear weapons are also researched. But a spokesperson for the lab said the only thing Lawrence Livermore is charged with is creating sensor devices that can detect dangerous agents in the air.

Bob Gould, a Bay Area doctor recently elected as the president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said research on fighting bioweapons is almost the same thing as researching how to create more effective bioweapons—something that could violate the Biological Weapons Convention. “There’s a really thin line,” Gould said. As an example, he cited the government’s announcement that it would modify certain agents in order to test new vaccines.

While UC Davis puts the finishing touches on the 500-page application it’s going to hand the NIH in a few weeks, officials from the agencies working together on the bid will be visiting Canada’s new level-4 lab in Winnipeg. Hinshaw said that lab’s location is an indicator of how safe it is to have these labs around: “This one’s in downtown Winnipeg.”