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MT. Pathogen research lab advances

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  • forcertain@mail.midrivers.com
    Pathogen research lab advances By JENNIFER McKEE Gazette State Bureau May 1, 2004 http://www.billingsgazette.com/index.php?
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2004
      Pathogen research lab advances
      Gazette State Bureau
      May 1, 2004


      MISSOULA - A proposed Hamilton research lab designed to study the world's most
      dangerous pathogens came one step closer to reality Friday when the National
      Institutes of Health released another environmental study affirming the
      agency's desire to build the facility.

      The final decision on the lab is expected sometime after June 4.

      "I'm pleased," said Rocky Mountain Laboratories Associate Director Marshall
      Bloom. "The assistant superintendent of Glacier National Park just died of a
      level 4 virus. If we'd had this lab here (now), there would be people here,
      including me, working on it."

      Just a step

      Bloom cautioned, however, that the incremental step forward announced Friday
      does not mean the lab is definitely going to be built.

      The NIH, which oversees Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, first
      proposed building the lab - known in biological lingo as a "biosafety level 4"
      or BL-4 lab - in 2002 at Rocky Mountain Labs. The $66.5 million, 105,000
      square-foot building would be adjacent to Rocky Mountain Lab's existing
      century-old campus.

      Only a handful of other BL-4 labs exist in the country.

      The announcement drew praise from some, like Gov. Judy Martz, who early on
      declared her support for the lab and the scientific prestige it would bring to
      the state, but concern from others, mainly local residents who feared for
      their safety should deadly microbes escape.

      Local concern was so great, the NIH postponed its final decision on the
      project to conduct an extra environmental study to answer the growing chorus
      of concerns ranging from noise to bioterrorism.

      Many residents questioned the ability of rural Ravalli County to respond to a
      major biological outbreak and suggested the lab be built some place better
      able to respond to such crises. While accidents may be rare, the result of an
      accident would be catastrophic, they argued, and should be considered.

      Mary Wulff of Coalition for a Safe Lab has long opposed the project and said
      Friday it seemed the federal agency dismissed any notion of building the lab
      elsewhere. She also said the NIH has refused to turn over information about
      Rocky Mountain Labs' safety record to three local organizations, including
      hers. The organizations have since sued to get the documents.

      She said she was disappointed that the NIH still has not come up with any
      contingency plans in case of an emergency at the lab and said she thinks the
      environmental studies were not really conducted to see if Hamilton is the best
      place for the facility.

      "It was predetermined," she said. "They were going to do what they wanted to
      do, anyway."

      Another view

      Martz's office took a different view.

      "We're delighted," said spokesman Chuck Butler. "Governor Martz recognizes
      that some people have concerns, but she's pleased the study supports
      proceeding with the project."

      Biological research labs are broken into four categories depending on the
      kinds of microbes scientists can safely handle in them. Biosafety level 1 labs
      can handle any microbe that doesn't cause disease and requires nothing more
      advanced than a working sink for safety. The most protective are BL-4 labs,
      which are designed to prevent microbes from ever coming into contact with
      scientists inside or the outside world.

      Rocky Mountain Labs already has several lesser protective labs, including a BL-
      3 lab, which can safely handle the microbe that causes anthrax. The proposed
      BL-4 lab would be a small part of an expansion including several less-
      protective research labs.

      Bloom said Friday that workers could break ground on the lab by late this
      summer if the NIH gives a final approval the plan.

      Copyright � The Billings Gazette

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