WASHINGTON – The National Institutes of Health said Thursday that it is proceeding with plans for a $100 million biodefense lab at Fort Detrick that will study biological agents that terrorists could use during an attack, among other research.
Besides researching defenses to such threats, the new National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases lab will also study infectious diseases like SARS and the West Nile virus, said NIH spokeswoman Laurie Doepel.
By putting the lab near the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which is also housed at the Army base in Frederick, NIH expects its researchers will be able to work together with the military researchers.
The 120,000-square-foot facility will have “biosafety level-4” capabilities, which means it will be secure enough for research on dangerous or exotic agents that cause diseases for which there are no available vaccines. Currently, there are only three operational laboratories in the United States with this capacity — one of which is at the Army’s Fort Detrick institute.
The lab is expected to be operational by 2007, said NIH facility planner Ron Wilson. He said safety measures have been built into the laboratory design to protect workers and local residents from possible harmful effects of biological agents, which he called “remote.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said the NIH facility will expand the nation’s research ability at a time when “the demand for knowledge exceeds our national capacity.”
But some residents near the base said they worry about living in the shadow of the new lab.
Anna Peterson, who lives four blocks from the Fort Detrick gate, said she is uncomfortable being so close to a lab working with life-threatening diseases.
“When we first heard about it, my husband and I just looked at each other,” she said. “It’s scary. We are raising a family. We have children to think of.”
Peterson said Frederick residents learned to live with the base long ago, but the community is full of “myths, legends, and hearsay about the dangers.”
But Peterson also conceded that many residents work inside Fort Detrick and that the community sees the development of the base as a boost to the economy.
One of those people is Maggie Touissant.
Touissant, who has worked as a contractor at the base, calls herself “pro-research” and said she believes fort officials take necessary precautious to protect the community from danger.
“They do all kinds of things with dangerous viruses and none of it ever gets out. They are very secure with those kinds of things,” she said.
Toussaint drives past the gates of Fort Detrick every day on her way into town. She said she is not afraid of the new lab and she does not think many others in town are afraid either.
“They wouldn’t live here otherwise,” she said.
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