Biohazard lab takes shape

  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.

The 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."

Montana’s Level 4 lab will probably be certified for research in late 2006 or 2007.