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Safety matches security at renovated Fort Detrick lab

FREDERICK — Cutting-edge technology is matched by high-tech security at a newly renovated Army biodefense laboratory, officials said Wednesday during a tour of the research suite at Fort Detrick.

Scientists working with the world’s deadliest pathogens are monitored by video cameras, watched through windows and tracked by sensors that know when someone has entered a lab.

“We want to make sure we work safely and that we come home to our families every day as safe as possible,” said Lisa Hensley, chief of viral therapeutics at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

She and other USAMRIID officials spoke to reporters during a tour of a renovated Biosafety Level 4 laboratory suite.

BSL-4 labs are reserved for work on lethal, highly infectious organisms for which no approved treatment exists, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses. They have negative air pressure to keep germs from escaping, and the scientists wear protective outfits resembling space suits to avoid infection.

USAMRIID’s mission is to develop countermeasures to protect U.S. troops, but research there can also lead to vaccines and treatments for the general population.

Federal spending on such biological defense work has increased since the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others — an attack the FBI blamed on a USAMRIID researcher, Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008. Many of his colleagues dispute the FBI’s conclusions.

The anthrax mailings intensified the government’s focus on security at the nation’s growing number of BSL-4 labs. Until 1990, the nation’s only BSL-4 labs were at Fort Detrick and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Today, there are BSL-4 labs at six U.S. locations, according to the CDC, which inspects the facilities.

At least six more labs with BSL-4 space are planned, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. Three will be at Fort Detrick, including a replacement USAMRIID complex that is part of a planned interagency biodefense complex on the Army installation.