In 1928 the dreaded tick, and the diseases it carried to humans, were undergoing scientific study at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton. In an attempt to appease neighbors who feared that the deadly, disease-carrying ticks would escape the confines of the lab and march across the countryside, spreading disease in their wake, workers erected a water-filled moat around the lab to keep the insects in.
Though water no longer courses through it, the tick moat, as it’s now affectionately called, is still in place, a quaint historical artifact and a testimony to the days when bioterrorism was defined as an errant, infected, bloodsucking parasite that could be seen with the naked eye and squashed under the heel of a boot.
In the 74 years since the tick moat was installed, disease-causing pathogens remain more dangerous than ever to mankind. What has changed since the days when people believed that a narrow, shallow moat would stop infection are the safety measures.
Recently, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health and the parent agency of the Rocky Mountain Laboratory, announced that a biosafety level-4 lab would be constructed on the RML campus.
The $66.5 million biosafety level-4 lab will be one of only five such labs in the United States and the only one in the northwest. What most people know about biosafety level-4 labs is what they’ve seen in movies: space suit-clad scientists, air-lock buffer zones and chemical decontamination. The planned Hamilton lab will contain all those elements as part of the nation’s larger effort to combat bioterrorism. The goal, says Dr. Jim Musser, RML’s chief of the Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis, is to develop new diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for diseases caused by potential bio- terrorism agents.
Scientists there will be studying highly dangerous disease-causing pathogens for which vaccines are either non-existent or not particularly effective: anthrax, plague, Q fever and hemorrhagic viruses such as Ebola and Marburg.
“For most agents, there are few vaccines,” says Musser. “If there are vaccines, in most instances they are not the best vaccines and we need new vaccines there.”
The new biosafety level-4 lab will also be used for the study of emerging pathogens. “There are a lot of diseases that pop up in the world, like West Nile virus and Hanta virus,” he says. “We anticipate the possibility of using this facility for the study of newly emerging infectious agents.”
One pathogen that will not be studied at RML is smallpox which, by international treaty, remains confined to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The idea that horrific diseases will be under study at a lab that sits in a leafy, residential neighborhood of Hamilton’s south side doesn’t sit well with everyone. Greg Tilford, a Hamilton resident, has written an op-ed piece that’s been published in both valley newspapers questioning the wisdom of studying the “nightmarish tools of mass destruction” at a lab on South Fourth Street in Hamilton. “So what,” he asks, “if by some small chance security is breached? Who is trained, equipped and staffed to respond if a bioterrorism agent is released into the environment?
“Although two or three other biolevel 4 labs have been operating safely for nearly 30 years in American cities with much higher population densities than Hamilton, they exist in places where emergency services might, just might, be able to respond at some level of efficiency,” Tilford says. “Can we expect the same level of response from the underfunded emergency response agencies of Ravalli County?”
Pat Stewart, chief administrator and facilities manager at RML, says there has never been an accident at any of the other biosafety level-4 labs in the United States—and there won’t be at this one either.
Musser and his team of scientists have visited similar labs, including the lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to profit from their security successes. “We want to understand the best possible way to construct and do security at our facility,” says Musser. “We’re parasitizing the best attributes of these facilities.”
The new biosafety lab is currently in the planning and design phase. Two architectural firms have been selected, and a Chicago development firm has been hired to be in charge of logistics.
Once the lab is up and running in about three years security will become much more stringent than it has been historically, and even since Sept. 11. In addition to the fence and armed guards which were put in place after the Sept. 11 attack, visitors to the lab will be under the watchful eyes of a video surveillance camera. All employees will carry ID cards embedded with computer chips so they can be located at all times.
Musser suspects that Congress will also pass legislation controlling the amount of infectious material the labs may handle. “Obviously, whatever legislation is passed, we will adhere to,” he says.
If people still aren’t convinced that deadly pathogens can be handled safely, they need look no further than the safety record of Rocky Mountain Lab itself, which has been studying infectious diseases like Q fever and plague for decades without incident. “We’ve had for years, if not decades, a very good program on plague,” says Musser. “We have one of the best plague facilities in the world. “One of the things to recognize in biosafety level-4 facilities is that these facilities are designed to keep the pathogens in.”
Stewart says any research that comes from the biosafety level-4 lab isn’t likely to be kept secret, but will be published in the same manner as other research.