Forum held on possible biocontainment laboratory

The University of Washington is holding community forums to discuss a possible Regional Biocontainment Laboratory that might be built near the Health Sciences Center on Seattle’s south campus.

The federal government would provide $25 million for building the facility, which may cost a total of $65 million. The University would use local funds and grants to cover the remaining costs. One possible site is the corner of 15th Avenue N.E. and N.E. Boat Street. A community forum will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at the Magnuson Park Community Center Auditorium. A campus forum was already held on Feb. 23.

The lab would serve as a regional resource and support research into biodefense and infectious diseases. It would house programs from the UW’s $50-million Regional Center for Biodefense, which is part of a network of eight federal research centers at leading health sciences institutions, such as Harvard, Duke, the University of Chicago and the University of Texas. The UW is the only regional center in the western United States.

Some community leaders have questioned building a biocontainment lab in an urban setting, but UW officials emphasize that this lab would not house untreatable infectious diseases such as Ebola fever. It would be a “biosafety level-3” facility, which means that antibiotics and other medical procedures can treat any disease being studied.

Currently the UW has about 30 laboratory spaces certified for level-3 research and other medical research facilities in the city also have level-3 labs. All UW laboratories are certified and monitored by UW Environmental and Health Safety.

At a Jan. 20 regents’ committee meeting, President Mark Emmert, ’75, emphasized that there will be a great deal of campus and community involvement before a decision is reached on the project.

“This is not a normal facility and we all know that,” he told the regents. “I am not ready to move forward.”

The President added that “the safety of our campus community and neighborhood is at the top of our list.”

Research Vice Dean Albert Berger told the committee that tentative plans call for faculty in the facility to conduct research in three infectious diseases: tularemia (also known as “rabbit fever”), bubonic plague and melioidosis, an infectious disease commonly found in Southeast Asia.

The facility would not be used for research to create biological research. Its purpose is to develop vaccines.

Regent Connie Proctor, while sharing community concerns, also noted how this facility could help global health. “There are benefits to this region for having that facility come here,” she said.