Galveston lab to handle world's deadliest viruses

Associated Press
March 14, 2004

HOUSTON — A specialized laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is set to become one of just a handful of labs in the Western Hemisphere designated to handle extremely deadly viruses.

The $15.5 million lab will handle Biosafety Level 4 viruses, labeled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the world's most dangerous biological materials.

The 2,000-square-foot UTMB lab will begin receiving materials in the next two weeks when it gets final certification from the CDC. The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio operates a small BSL-4 lab.

The UTMB lab will follow only the CDC lab in Atlanta and an Army research lab in Fort Detrick, Md., as labs designated to handle emergency research in the United States.

An emergency research could be a bioterror attack or a naturally occurring epidemic like the one depicted in the fictional 1995 movie "Outbreak."

The extra lab is needed to study emerging and infectious diseases developing around the world, U.S. officials said.

"Current intelligence estimates ... strongly suggest the terrorist threat will continue for the foreseeable future and that they will be looking for a 'big score' with weapons of mass destruction," said C.J. Peters, director of biodefense for UTMB's Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the government has been spending $1.7 billion a year on biodefense in response to possible bioterrorism attacks.

Immunologist Gigi Kwik said in a story for Sunday's Houston Chronicle that U.S. officials do not have enough knowledge about some of the diseases that could be used as biological weapons.

"It seems that right now it is easier to take something and make a weapon out of it than to make a vaccine or therapeutic for it. This research is painstaking, but every bit of knowledge helps," said Kwik, a fellow at the Biosecurity Center of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The Galveston lab will have access to a host of viruses, except for smallpox, which is limited by international law to the CDC lab in Atlanta and a Russian lab.

At the lab, scientists will try to understand the structure of the viruses, and then figure out how they grow and act.

The researchers also will help develop field tests to rapidly detect the viruses, work to identify drugs to combat them and try to produce vaccines.

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On the Net:

University of Texas Medical Branch: http://www.utmb.edu/

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