The Wall Street Journal has an story today (available here) on the building boom for bioterrorism labs, noting that no less than seven “biosafety level 4 (BSL-4)” labs are under construction or on the drawing board today.
From the article:
…That jump in cost was a fraction of what the federal government plans to spend on new facilities to fight bioterrorism — at least $1.0 billion over the next decade on seven large new buildings housing laboratories for research designated “biosafety level-4,” reserved for life-threatening diseases with no known cure. The amount of space reserved for BSL-4 research could top 100,000 square feet in the seven buildings, experts say….
For the past few decades, research on BSL-4 agents has been limited primarily to the CDC and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. But with the threat of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases, these facilities aren’t adequate for the growing demand for research into BSL-4 agents, scientists say. Prior to the new facility, the CDC’s most recent lab for highly infectious diseases was built in 1988. A U.S. Army lab facility planned for Fort Detrick will be 700,000-square-feet — the size of seven Wal-Marts — and will cost at least $400 million, although plans could change by the time it is completed in 2013.
Some critics have questioned the many construction projects and the need for so much lab space devoted to BSL-4 research. “It’s a mystery what they are going to fill these labs up with, because there are, frankly, not that many BSL-4 agents, and not that many researchers to keep these places busy,” said Edward Hammond, director of Austin, Texas-based Sunshine Project, which monitors the U.S. biodefense program.
Clearly there is the need for more capacity, given the current realities of the bioterror threat and the potential for genetically engineered bioweapons. My primary concern after reading the article is that all of this seems to be taking place haphazardly, in the absence of a clearly defined bioterrorism strategy that aligns agency roles and funding priorities. The article indicates that four separate agencies are building BSL-4 facilities: DHS, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at NIH, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Are they working closely together? Do the White House and OMB have a strategy that aligns and prioritizes all of this activity? And have these investments been tested against related funding priorities, such as providing grants to develop the next generation of scientists who will be needed to work in these labs?
If not, these investments are unnecessarily risky, and the potential for waste and duplication of effort is high.