Concern growing over U.S. BSL-4 capacity

Despite a federally-mandated attempt to increase the amount of biosafety level-4 laboratory space in the United States beginning in 2001, only a portion of the planning has been carried through.

The anthrax attacks of 2001 pushed the U.S. government to invest in programs focused on highly-dangerous infectious diseases, including those that occur naturally and those that would potentially be used in a terrorist attack. The next year, a panel of infectious disease scientists brought together by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommended adding more BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory space scattered throughout the United States, according to MicrobeMagazine.

Congress agreed and mandated that the expansion continue. In 2003, NIAID awarded grants to 13 regional institutions for new biocontainment facilities and two construction grants for National Biocontainment Laboratories with BSL-4 capability - one at the University of Texas Medical Center and one at the Boston University Medical Center.

The facility in Texas is currently fully functional, but the BU lab remains closed because of community concerns. The UT lab, managed by the University of Texas Medical Branch, was opened in 2008. UTMB also operates another BSL-4 lab that opened in 2004. Meanwhile, BU has been mired in a process of reports and counter reports as it inches its way towards certification.

Biodefenese experts are growing concerned about the possible lack of BSL-4 laboratory space and how available laboratory space is being used.

"It's been more than a decade since the anthrax letters, but BSL capacity has not as yet been fully realized," Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburg Biodenfense Center in Baltimore said, MicrobeMagazine reports. "However, it isn't known whether the BSL-3 and -4 labs are overburdened or not by anyone beyond NIH or individual laboratory directors. It's also very hard to get a whole picture of how the labs are being used."