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16 October 2008

New lab security report may signal need for pause

By LARRY MARGASAK Associated Press Writer

Oct. 16, 2008, 8:05PM

WASHINGTON — Another frightening new government report is heightening fears about the safety of U.S. biodefense laboratories that study some of the world's deadliest germs. The latest worry: Intruders could easily break into two of the labs due to lax security.

Now some lawmakers and members of a new citizen coalition are asking whether it's time for a timeout in the expansion of the Bush administration's biowarfare defense program.

The Bush administration decided after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the nation needed to develop cures, drug treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests to combat germs that could be used in a terrorist attack or accidentally released.

And, while U.S. officials say there are no known incidents where outsiders attacked anyone with germs from a U.S. lab, the FBI concluded last summer that a microbiologist at the Army's lab in Fort Detrick, Md., was responsible for anthrax attacks in 2001.

Two House lawmakers and members of a new citizen coalition — people "living in the shadow" of these labs — say the defensive biowarfare program has expanded too fast since Sept. 11, 2001. Security measures have not caught up, they said.

The latest government study, initially obtained by The Associated Press and released publicly Thursday, found that intruders could easily break into two laboratories handling organisms that could cause illnesses with no cure.

The AP identified the vulnerable lab locations as Atlanta and San Antonio. The Government Accountability Office did not identify the labs except to say they were classified as Biosafety Level 4 facilities — requiring the highest level of security. But the report included enough details for the AP — and others knowledgeable about such labs — to determine their locations.

In Texas, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research features an outside window that looks directly into the room where the deadly germs are handled. The lab, which is privately run, also lacks sufficient security cameras, intrusion detection alarms or visible armed guards at its public entrances. Officials there said they will tighten security.

How many other research facilities in the U.S. have BSL-3 or BSL-4 laboratories?

Most facilities in the United States with infectious disease research programs have BSL-3 laboratories. In addition, many hospitals have areas that can be operated at this level; these areas are used for isolating patients with highly contagious diseases.

BSL-4 labs have the most stringent safety and security requirements. There are currently only four operational BSL-4 laboratory suites in the United States: at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA; at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD; at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio; and at the University of Texas at Galveston.

A small BSL-4 facility exists on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, but it is currently being operated only at a BSL-3 level for research on important emerging infectious diseases. There is also a small BSL-4 glovebox capability at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA.

The Sunshine Project
Biosafety Bites (v.2) #14 (6 June 2006)

Cowboy BSL-4 in Texas Thumbs its Nose at the NIH Guidelines and the NIH Office of Biotechnology Activities

The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in San Antonio, Texas ( has BSL-4 containment, thousands of primates, and some of the world's most dangerous viruses, such as Ebola and Lassa (1). Founded in 1941 by a Yale-educated oil tycoon whose other scientific endeavors included a search for the Abominable Snowman (a.k.a. Bigfoot) (2), SFBR is something of a receptacle for biomedical research that can't find a place at other institutions, especially those more squarely in the public eye. This is especially true of SFBR's relationship with the University of Texas System.

SFBR does dirty work for other labs, including dangerous experiments challenging animals with anthrax spores (3) and controversial projects such as sequencing indigenous peoples' DNA (4), testing their medicinal plants (5), and making genetically engineered monkeys (6).

If SFBR's official agenda wasn't controversial enough, it also conducts secret government biological projects that the public will never learn about. SFBR's biolabs are ringed with razor wire and have government clearance for classified research. "Many of the staff possess security clearances and have considerable experience in classified research and collaborations with national defense agencies." wrote its President in 2002 (7). SFBR also wants the Department of Homeland Security's proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), a gigantic new 30 acre (12 ha) biodefense BSL-4 complex.

SFBR employs 400 and receives millions of dollars in federal biomedical grants every year, including participation in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) biodefense "Center of Excellence". It keeps the Bigfoot tradition alive with over 6,000 penned chimpanzees, baboons, macaques, and other primates, who alone receive about $6 million in NIH funding each year for their upkeep.

Despite its BSL-4 lab and extensive research involving biological weapons agents, SFBR refuses to comply with the NIH Guidelines on Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules, the allegedly obligatory federal system that requires the establishment and operation of Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBC) to ensure the safety of biotechnology research. In fact, SFBR cannot - or will not - produce any real evidence that its IBC exists and fulfills its obligations.

BSL-4 Laboratories


Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA



CDC Building 18, the Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, is the premier biocontainment facility of its kind in the world today. Located on CDC’s Roybal Campus in Atlanta, GA, this 440,000 sf facility is the flagship facility for the HHS in their mission to protect all Americans from infectious disease.

Building 18 incorporates BSL-4/3Ag/3/2 laboratories and animal facilities, including specialized research in Q-fever, avian influenza and other high consequence agents. The laboratories directly support the CDC Bioterrorism Program, Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases, Special Pathogens Branch, Division of AIDS, STD and TB Laboratory Research, and the Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. The building also successfully balances ample office and amenity spaces with cutting edge laboratories to provide much-needed relief from the intensity of such research.

In addition, Building 18 contains forensic quality specimen receiving and analysis laboratories for CDC’s Bioterrorism Response and Preparedness program, which along with USAMRIID are the nation’s two Level D components of the laboratory response network. The laboratories are appropriate for drug efficacy studies, and the animal facilities are designed to AAALAC standards.


$167 million 11-story, 370,000 sf Building 18-National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory including Vivarium and BSL-2, 3, and 4 Laboratories, and 3-level, 48,201 sf central utility plant.


US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick, MD



Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, San Antonio, TX

Biosafety Level-4 Laboratory

A special advantage in their life-saving quest of the Department of Virology and Immunology’s state-of-the-art facilities include the nation’s only privately owned biosafety level four (BSL-4) maximum containment laboratory. This facility – which has proven especially beneficial in support of the nation’s biodefense efforts – allows Foundation scientists to safely study lethal pathogens for which there currently is no known treatment or cure.

The BSL-4 full-suit lab has been certified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for work on human and animal pathogens. Access to the BSL-4 area is controlled. The lab satisfies safety and security requirements for numerous federal organizations. The laboratory contains Class IIB Biological Safety hoods, low-, high- and ultra-speed centrifuges equipped with both analytical and preparative scale rotors, low-speed centrifuges and microfuges, 4C refrigerators, -20C and -80C freezers.


Centre for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases BSL-4, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX


Galveston National Laboratory


Robert E. Shope, M.D. BSL4 Laboratory

John Sealy Pavilion for Infectious Diseases Research

The 2,140-square-foot UTMB BSL4 laboratory is devoted to the study of tropical and emerging infections and additionally will serve as a key component in the nation’s fight against bioterrorism. The maximum containment design for the facility includes approximately 10,000 additional square feet devoted to housing equipment to be used to sterilize and decontaminate all material leaving the lab, thus permitting scientists to safely study some of the most dangerous organisms on the planet. The plans for UTMB's BSL4 were approved in 2000. Construction was completed in 2003 and the facility was commissioned in 2004.


National Institute of Health Campus, Bethesda, MD

NIH Campus Building 10


NIH Campus Building 50


Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA


The Biology Department at Georgia State University is housed in three buildings:

* Kell Hall
* The Natural Science Center
* The Science Annex

Viral Immunology Center

The Viral Immunology Core (VIC) consists of four components centered around the needs and research interests of Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Dr. Julia Hilliard: the BSL3/BSL4 glove-box facility, the clinical diagnostic test laboratory, research and development laboratories, and the business office.

BSL3/BSL4: The glove-boxed facility allows Dr. Hilliard to carry out her Herpes B virus work as an NIH National Resource Center, and also supports her clinical diagnostic test operation. The BSL4 laboratory is one of only four in the country and the only one in a university setting. The facility is available to local skilled and experienced scientists to work within the biocontainment condition.

Clinical Diagnostic Laboratories: Consist of a combination of a highly sophisticated serological laboratory and an immunological laboratory that, together, perform more than 15,000 clinical tests a year. Research and Development Laboratory: Explores new frontiers and improves current techniques in the field of virology and vaccine development. Business Office: Manages facility user fees for the laboratories.

The major activities of the VIC include:

* Elucidation of host-virus interactions during alpha herpesvirus pathogenesis;

* Development of improved serological and virological test systems for the rapid detection of Herpes B virus (Herpesvirus simiae) and other simian herpesviruses;

* Maintenance of a diagnostic resource laboratory for worldwide use in emergency cases of zoonotic transmission of Herpes B virus infections in humans;

* Maintenance of a diagnostic resource laboratory for the detection of Herpes B virus infections in macaques to support the development of NIH-supported specific pathogen-free captive macaque colonies;

* Development of new anti-viral vaccine and drug therapies for prevention and treatment of zoonotic agents.

* High-throughput diagnostics using state-of-the-art robotic automation equipment from Beckman-Coulter.


Dr. Julia Hilliard, project director (Science Annex 423)
Phone: 404-651-0811; Fax: 404-651-0821


Julia Hilliard
Laboratory Information
Lab Website external link
Contact Information
Lab Telephone: (404) 413-6565
Building Name: National Science Center
Room Number: 348