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Biolab Risks


Frederick County's commissioners were offered an easier choice in confronting concerns about a new biolab at Fort Detrick. But that doesn't imply it won't come at a cost, and for that they deserve our praise.

For more than a year, commissioners dutifully heard arguments for a court review of an environmental study that didn't fully address the potential catastrophic hazards posed by tens of thousands of square feet of BSL-4 biolabs, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of BSL-2 and -3 labs.

At times, it must've seemed an onerous distraction from their budget, trash and land-use quandaries, and they probably resented the intrusion.

They understand the role that Detrick has played historically and economically in the county, and some have longtime associations with people who work at Detrick. Besides, what local government body wants to pick a fight with the U.S. Army and Congress, particularly in a federal courtroom? The best outcome expected from such a battle is a lengthy delay until smarter heads in Washington can prevail.

That's too much of a gamble.

Thanks to the informed and sustained efforts of residents, the commissioners found a more palatable and meaningful way to assess the serious threat to the public safety and welfare, one with the potential to put the brakes on the growth of biolabs at USAMRIID.

With Sen. Barbara Mikulski's full endorsement, commissioners now look to the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the safety of housing deadly pathogens with no vaccine or cure in the heart of a densely populated city. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that this type of facility should be constructed in an isolated location.

The actions of the commissioners in seeking input from NAS are especially timely, and their concerns, as well as those of a growing number of residents, cannot be brushed aside as alarmist overreaction.

Detrick insiders protest Detrick knows its job when it comes to containment and security. But well-documented breaches have occurred at Detrick over the years, incidents publicized in the local and national press, underscoring the wisdom and necessity of the commissioners' action.

FOX News reported last month that the FBI has narrowed its focus to "about four suspects," at least three of whom are linked to USAMRIID, including a former deputy commander, a leading anthrax scientist and a microbiologist.

FOX talked to a bioterrorism expert who said the Detrick link points out "serious security deficiencies ... the ability of researchers to smuggle out some type of very sophisticated anthrax weapon and in some quantity."

This revelation goes far beyond calling into question security at Detrick. This revelation amounts to official acknowledgement that the anthrax letters could be an inside job whose purpose is reflected in the following statement by former USAMRIID commander David Frantz, as reported by ABC News in 2002: "I think a lot of good has come from [the anthrax attacks]. From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget into defending against bioterrorism."

The Frederick Citizens for Biolab Safety will meet regarding the National Academy of Sciences safety review of USAMRIID from 7 to 8:45 p.m. April 28 and April 29 at C. Burr Artz Library. Participants will discuss benefits of the study, the process, and the important role residents will continue to play.