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Do Biological Weapons Labs Everywhere Make You Feel Safer or Less Safe?

When the nation was terrorized by deadly anthrax attacks in late 2001, Virginia's state laboratory played a crucial role in the response, performing more than 1,000 tests on samples.

Nearly 10 years later, the state's Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services has become an even more important link in the nation's bioterrorism defense network.

Located in a secure building in the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park in Richmond, the laboratory receives more than 600,000 samples and performs more than 6 million tests annually. It is capable of identifying myriad pathogens, toxins and bio-warfare agents in human tissue and environmental samples.

"We are a completely different laboratory today than we were 10 years ago," said Thomas L. York, Laboratory Services' deputy director.

In 2003, the laboratory moved into a new $63 million building. The lab is one of just a handful nationwide with biosafety Level 4 capabilities, the highest level of containment for handling some of the most dangerous and infectious organisms and toxic substances.

The lab is capable of testing for dangerous diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis and West Nile virus. Yet it also continues to perform routine tests essential to public health in Virginia, such as testing water and soil samples for toxins, and blood samples from newborn infants in Virginia for 29 different diseases.

Among other services, the lab was involved in recent years in testing hogs from farms in the southeast United States that had ingested contaminated feed from China. It also performed testing support that led to several national food alerts, including salmonella and aflatoxin contamination of peanut butter, peppers, tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts.

The biggest increase in work that the lab performs has been testing various sorts of materials that might contain dangerous toxins, York said. Testing of the food supply for pathogens also has increased.

"I think public health as a whole has improved significantly since 9/11, whether it is our ability to look for infectious agents or even chemical agents," York said.

While the state lab is central to all that work, one of the key changes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax poisonings has been the laboratory's efforts at outreach, communications, training and building networks statewide and nationally, said York and Richard F. Sliwoski, director of the state's Department of General Services.

The "Sentinel Labs" program has involved working with laboratories at hospitals, universities and other institutions in Virginia to improve training and communications and help improve response time to disease outbreaks or incidents involving toxins.

"Today, we have in the neighborhood of 143 laboratories that we have brought together in this network of laboratories," York said. "We provide training to them, we go to their labs, meet with them, bring them here and train them, and build partnerships. It strengthens our whole lab response."

The state laboratory also provides training for first responders and FBI agents.

Technology also has improved response times since 2001, York said. The laboratory that opened in 2003 has a larger, more advanced molecular biology lab that can perform DNA tests on a wide range of possible pathogens.

In 2001, it could take 24 hours to positively identify anthrax in a sample. With molecular biology methods today, "within four hours we can begin to see if you have (anthrax) in that sample," York said. "Instead of waiting 24 hours, we have a confirmatory result within four hours."

"We can look at 12, 13 or 14 different organisms all at the same time," in one sample, he said.

The lab's volume of testing has increased by about 5 percent per year, York said. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the lab has become more dependent on federal grant money to support its expanded role.

About 32 percent of the lab's $29 million budget comes from federal grants. Today, the lab benefits from about 26 federal grant programs, compared with three grant programs before 9/11.

Those grants have enabled the lab to beef up its technology, staffing and training. Yet the federal government's budget deficit, and the major budget cuts that are likely to result, could affect the state lab's financial support.

"We know it is coming," York said. "We don't know how big it is going to be."

That is why Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to set aside $30 million of the state's budget surplus as a buffer against federal budget cuts is important, Sliwoski said.

The lab has a staff of 220 people. That includes about 19 staff members with doctorates and 32 with master's degrees, compared with six doctorates and about a dozen with master's degree prior to Sept. 11. About 35 of the lab's positions are supported with federal grant money.

York said some of the "best and brightest" staff members are supported by federal grants. "It does come down to people," he said. "Some of the people we have on those grants are some of our most highly qualified people." (804) 775-8123



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