SEATTLE – The University of Washington has applied for a $25 million federal grant to build a laboratory that would be equipped for the study of potential bioterrorism agents such as anthrax.
As described in the proposal to the National Institutes of Health by the university’s medical school late last month, the 56,000-square-foot “regional biocontainment laboratory” would be built just north of Portage Bay in the southwest part of the campus.
Besides the grant funds, the university would need to raise $22 million to build the high-security lab for research on biodefense and infectious diseases. NIH’s decision is expected by September.
The application, supported by Mayor Greg Nickels, outgoing Gov. Gary Locke and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, has drawn concern from some faculty leaders and activists.
“I don’t think anybody objects to the task,” said G. Ross Heath, an oceanography professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate. “The question is whether it should be sited on a university campus in a large urban environment next to a body of fresh water.”
Heath said Tuesday he learned of the proposal by accident and, when he informed the rest of the faculty group’s executive committee, most were “astonished, then outraged that the university could proceed with such a project without discussing it with faculty.”
School President Mark A. Emmert said university officials were planning wider discussion of the proposal on campus in January and February.
“This is something we’re simply considering, and we have not made any decision either way on whether to pursue the facility,” Emmert said. “It’s still very, very preliminary.”
Emmert and officials in the mayor’s office and NIH said the lab would have plenty of safety features and be off-limits to the deadliest agents, such as the Ebola virus.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of NIH, plans to help finance about 15 such labs nationwide, including one in the heart of Boston.
“The statement I would make is these labs are so safe it doesn’t matter in essence where they are,” said Dr. Rona Hirschberg, head of the division.
With measures such as a pressure-controlled, airlocked room and protective gear for researchers, the lab would be classified as biosafety level 3, one step below the most dangerous level.
The lab would handle only “small quantities” of bioterrorism agents and do “nothing for offensive weapons development,” Hirschberg said.
“There’s never been an incident where anybody’s been harmed by a release of agents from one of these facilities,” she said. “I think the danger is somewhat blown out of proportion.”
Backers include Samuel Miller, director of the university’s Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research, established with a $50 million NIH grant in 2003. That center is one of eight nationwide and the only one on the West Coast.
“The building fulfills a regional and national need,” Miller said.
“We`re learning about general principles of infectious diseases that are valuable for global health and everyone. We need to protect ourselves from these diseases in a globalized world that is rapidly shrinking.”
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