Living Terror: NIH faces rising opposition

By DEE ANN DIVIS and NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, United Press International  |  Aug. 12, 2003 at 9:33 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- As the National Institute of Health prepares to award hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to build anti-bioterrorism laboratories, public resistance to plans in Massachusetts, Montana, Oregon -- and at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Md. -- is growing more acute.

The grants would fund the construction of expansive new labs, some in highly populated areas, as part of a $2.5-billion dollar Bush administration program to study vaccines and treatments against bioterror weapons. The research necessarily involves using lethal pathogens and toxins and preventing leaks to the surrounding area is critical to safety.

In Boston, citizens anxious about the federal agency constructing a major lab at a dense downtown location staged a public demonstration late last month. Members of the City Council have proposed an ordinance that would bar dangerous testing, noting some of the "disease causing organisms used in Biosafety Level 4 laboratories ... have no known cure." A BSL 4 lab is necessary to handle the most dangerous bioterror materials. The ordinance is expected to come up later this month.

Citizens groups in Hamilton, Mont., sent NIH an 81-page set of objections to the agency's environmental impact statement -- compiled in support of building a major bioterrorism lab there. Some groups warned the safety considerations of the lab plan were lax. Despite support from Gov. Judy Martz and the city government of Hamilton, the project is now delayed.

NIH is planning a Biosafety Level 3 lab for biodefense at its headquarters. With the second-highest level of containment, this facility would not be as secure as the one planned for Hamilton, but still would able to do research on anthrax, West Nile Virus, tularemia and drug-resistant tuberculosis. Citizen groups argue placing such a dangerous lab in a crowded Washington suburb is foolhardy when NIH is building another lab only 30 miles north, on a closed military base in Frederick, Md.

In Portland, Ore., officials of the Oregon Health and Sciences Hospital acknowledge they might have been passed over for an NIH grant this year. Even so, they still are facing increased public questions about plans for a laboratory there.

Another city is also at risk of being passed over. The NIH is investigating a complaint that NIH-set guidelines for information disclosure have been violated by University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which also is seeking an NIH grant to build a biodefense laboratory. If true, UTMB potentially could be eliminated from consideration and its other NIH projects put at risk.

Under NIH guidelines, the minutes and other documents of certain local safety committees monitoring genetic research must be made public. As United Press International reported last week, the Sunshine Project, which wished to monitor the lab program, filed a complaint after UTMB refused to release the material on the grounds it was proprietary information.

"NIH is conducting a review of the facts that Mr. Hammond, the director of the Sunshine Project, conveyed to us and is asking the University of Texas Medical Group to respond to his claims," said NIH spokesman Bill Grigg. "Then we'll make an adjudication of it."

The University of California, Davis, also has declined to provide other types of information, local opposition groups claim, though no complaint as been filed. UC Davis officials have asserted their plans are open to the public.

Whatever the merits of the complaint, UC Davis does appear to be on the short list for selection to receive a grant. Pat Bailey, a spokeswoman for the university, said NIH officials had visited them on July 17. NIH representatives told the university it was entering a "final period" and would not receive further contacts. NIH asked the university to supply some new details, but Bailey said the government declined to allow her to release them.

UPI reported in July that President George W. Bush's nationwide plan to build high security biodefense laboratories was meeting unexpected resistance in many parts of the country. There are an estimated 40 labs capable of handling dangerous bioterrorism weapons that have been proposed, planned or completed. Some of the labs are sponsored by NIH, some by private companies and still others by other agencies -- including the military and the Department of Energy.

The primary NIH program would build one or two major Biosafety Level 4 laboratories. NIH expects to announce the grants for them in October. Four educational institutions seeking them reportedly have received field visits from NIH. Along with UC Davis, they include the University of Illinois at Chicago, Boston University and UTMB-Galveston.

The BSL 4 laboratories planned for Hamilton, Mont., and the military base at Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Md., are on NIH's own property.

The Frederick plans have gone forward largely unnoticed, but the Hamilton site has met increasing resistance. The site is on the land of a laboratory that NIH has run since before World War II, but now the area -- in Montana's Bitterroot Valley -- is a growing bedroom community for nearby Missoula.

Opposition groups compelled NIH to prepare an environmental impact statement, which was issued earlier this year. Mary Wulff, spokeswoman for the coalition, said she had heard some 160 separate questions had been lodged on the EIS. Her group, Coalition for a Safe Lab, sent 81 pages of questions and objections to NIH.

The document charged the NIH draft "is entirely inadequate in its analysis of significant safety, health, social, economic and environmental issues." The groups argued the EIS "was arbitrarily limited" to avoid consideration of other valid sites. Wulff said the group does not know when NIH will answer the questions, but suspected it would be late September. The opposition groups have slowed the project, which was supposed to begin this fall, she said.

In Bethesda, NIH had long planned to build a new building on a portion of its headquarters campus, but opposition emerged a year ago when it became known it had designated a portion of the building for a BSL 3 laboratory.

Community groups began an immediate outcry and NIH commissioned a private study to examine the safety of the lab. It also appointed a "risk assessment" committee that will make the final decision.

Jinny Miller, deputy chief of the risk assessment group and an open critic of the lab plan, said that after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NIH imposed new rules and closed off its campus to protect employees. If such precautions were necessary, then putting the lab on a military base with guards would not be an unreasonable request, she said.

The building site is at one of the most congested intersections in Montgomery County, Md. Thousands of commuters pass through the area in a daily crush routinely rated one of the worst in the nation.

"I thought the location might be reverse psychology," quipped one county planner.

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