A huge construction crane towers over a corner of the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories campus in Hamilton, a small town south of Missoula. As the crane slings buckets of concrete, a $66.5 million building takes shape. It’s part of the federal government’s ominous-sounding Project BioShield.
In locations ranging from Texas to
Massachusetts, the Department of Health and Human Services is
constructing two similar buildings and has proposed three others.
They’re federal Biosafety Level 4 labs, designed to house
experiments on the world’s most dangerous organisms,
including the Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses. The government
fears that terrorists might attack with such organisms, which
spread through the air and have a high fatality rate. The nation
has only five such labs operating now. There is a "very compelling"
need for more, to research vaccines and other prevention measures,
says the lab’s vice president, Marshall Bloom.
Rocky Mountain Labs have researched less dangerous organisms for
decades, but neighbors still worry that diseases may escape (HCN,
10/28/02: Bush’s war on terrorism comes West). They filed
lawsuits that delayed groundbreaking on the project for a year, but
won only an agreement that lab officials will keep the public
better informed about the research and any accidents.
That worry flared up again on Feb. 11, when a leaking seal on a
bottle exposed one researcher to a bacteria that causes "Q fever,"
which has a 2 percent mortality rate. The researcher was treated
with antibiotics, and public health officials were alerted. Larry
Campbell, with Friends of the Bitterroot, says for that accident,
the lab’s safety measures worked. But he adds, "We need to
keep alert. They try to come off as infallible scientists, but
there’s a lot of room for error."
Level 4 lab will probably be certified for research in late 2006 or