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D.C. Taking on Lab Work

District officials, tired of having to depend on other labs and agencies to process forensics and potentially dangerous substances, are hoping to equip the nation’s capital with a state-of-the-art lab of its own. And Capitol Hill is one place officials are looking to build it.

While it has been casually referred to as the “bioterrorism lab,” in reality the District of Columbia Consolidated Lab would be able to do far more than process a wide variety of agents.

“‘Consolidated lab’ has been somewhat mischaracterized,” said Gina Lagomarsino, a senior policy adviser for D.C. City Administrator Robert Bobb’s office. “This term ‘bioterrorism’ has taken over.”

The main purpose of the lab would be to “consolidate the lab functions of the government, [D.C.] Department of Health’s public health lab, police department crime lab and chief medical examiner’s lab” while boosting their combined capabilities, said Ed Reiskin, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice. He said the city would merge all lab components into a facility “that will serve the District’s future needs and maybe those of the region.”

Building a new lab will allow District officials to explore their options, such as whether the facility should be constructed as a biosafety level three or four. Reiskin said they “may want to go for four,” as it will give them more capabilities, but they have to look at what that will cost. Often referred to as a BSL-4, these labs operate under the most stringent safety and security requirements and can handle potentially dangerous agents in the event of a bioterrorism incident.

“When people hear the word bioterrorism, they automatically get concerned — it’s a very ominous word,” said D.C. City Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large). “But nothing will happen, not before [area residents] are fully informed and until all concerns raised have been answered.”

Those answers must come from Bobb, and he “has yet to bring forward a plan,” Catania said. But the idea for such a lab has been brewing in the minds of city officials for about five years.

A Lab of Their Own

The most significant capability the District lacks right now is the ability to process forensics. Reiskin said D.C. relies heavily on other agencies, such as the FBI, and “sometimes the work doesn’t get done.” Also lacking is the public health lab, which is classified as a BSL-2 lab. According to Reiskin, the District needs to upgrade to a BSL-4 “to be able to analyze more complex types of substances.”

As broken down by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Web site, a BSL-2 lab mainly deals with agents “associated with human disease.” These labs, where most of the work can be done on a bench top, implement guidelines such as limited access, sharp object precautions, biohazard warning signs and require a sink for hand washing.

A BSL-4 lab, on the other hand, handles agents that “are associated with human disease and cause illness by spreading through the air or have an unknown cause of transmission” and “cause diseases that are usually life-threatening,” such as ricin or anthrax, for example. A BSL-4 lab will elicit a “higher need for training and facilities,” Reiskin said.

Those working with agents necessitating a BSL-4 lab must change clothes before entering the work area and shower when exiting, and the materials must be decontaminated before they leave the facility. While BSL-2 calls for lab coats, gloves or face protection as needed, BSL-4 requires a “full-body, air-supplied, positive-pressure personnel suit.”

Reiskin said BSL-4 lab capabilities are needed so that the District is prepared to handle any bioterrorism agents on-site, rather than having to waste time shipping the agents elsewhere.

“In the event of a bioterrorist incident, that substance or chemical has to be transported through and outside of the District, either to a regional lab or down to [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in] Atlanta, while we sit here in the District and wait for the results,” Reiskin said.

Vocal Opposition

Currently, the future lab has no “neighborhood presence,” but Reiskin said District officials are in the process of selecting a location from approximately a dozen potential sites.

One of the sites in question is Reservation 13, a federally owned 67-acre stretch of land in Southeast surrounding Massachusetts Avenue, bounded by E and 19th streets, Independence Avenue and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium parking lot. The area generally has been used for medical facilities, the most notable being D.C. General Hospital, which closed its doors in 2001.

Today, the D.C. Jail and a variety of Health Department buildings call Reservation 13 home, and future plans for the site hang in limbo as District officials try to figure out how to acquire ownership of the land, which is necessary before any private development can be done.

In February, District officials announced that they were working with Howard University, proposing the construction of a $400 million, new 250-bed hospital at the D.C. General site. While many were upset at the closing of D.C. General, there are numerous concerns about building a new hospital at the same location. Lagomarsino said city councilmembers raised “valid questions” in mid-February, such as whether there is a need for the hospital and how to generate necessary funding. Since then, Bobb has been meeting with councilmembers and both he and Mayor Anthony Williams (D) “are still standing behind the original proposal, but still are open to hearing other options,” Lagomarsino said.

City Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) has voiced her opposition to the idea of the consolidated lab containing any bioterror capabilities and, in the event that it does, she said she can’t imagine the lab setting up shop in Southeast.

“It isn’t like Fort Detrick [in Frederick, Md.] on acres by itself,” Ambrose said about Reservation 13. “You don’t put dangerous material a block away from people’s houses. It’s one thing to be looking at DNA samples. … It’s quite another thing to be dealing with lethal agents that close to people’s houses.”

In fact, as far as Ambrose is concerned, the proposed bioterrorism lab only became a topic of discussion because of “somebody in the mayor’s office who was being very creative about how to get a little additional homeland security money,” she said. And while she doesn’t “even know what a bioterrorism lab might be,” Ambrose said a forensics lab is a different story.

“We are going to build a new forensics lab,” Ambrose said, reiterating Reiskin’s point that sending samples out to other labs takes too long. The samples from the District are “not at the top of the list for getting the results back quickly. We really, really need a good lab of our own.”

However, building a lab that meets District officials’ requirements will take time, as labs are “more complicated than just building an office building,” Reiskin said. Right now, program analysis is being conducted and eventually, criteria such as cost, site readiness, proximity and logistics will be established.

Costly Venture

The construction of a lab with a higher biosafety level will come with a hefty price tag.

In 2001, Reiskin said the estimated cost of a lab with bioterrorism and forensics capabilities was estimated at $75 million to $80 million. However, he added that the analysis was “pretty rough” and “didn’t include everything” that District officials currently want as part of the lab.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see that cost go quite a bit higher,” Reiskin said. “We should have a better handle on the cost in the next three or four months.”

In terms of who will pick up the tab, Reiskin said he thinks it will be a 75-25 split between federal and local funding. President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget allocates $103 million to the District, with $7 million of that set aside to “allow the District to move forward with early construction phases.” Also, that amount “will be matched by $1.5 million in local capital funds from the District,” according to the budget.

“We’ve been working with the federal government over the past couple of years,” Reiskin said. “It really just depends on how much support we get, but support so far has been fairly positive.”

One possible money saver is that any “reasonable and usable” equipment would be moved to the new facility, Reiskin said. For example, the chief medical examiner’s office in D.C. has purchased a fair amount of equipment in the past few years that would most likely make the transition.

“Anywhere there are shortcomings, we would ultimately look to enhance that capability,” Reiskin said of possible equipment purchases and upgrades.

Reiskin said the lab is most likely a project that will take three to four years to complete.

“It won’t be fast, but it’s something that we want to make sure that we do well, do right,” Reiskin said.

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