Army breaks ground for bigger biodefense lab at Fort Detrick

FREDERICK, Md. — The U.S. military's flagship biological defense agency has broken ground on a $680 million headquarters building designed for expanded Army research on the world's deadliest pathogens.

The new home of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick is scheduled to open in May 2014. When fully staffed by the end of 2015, it will house as many as 952 scientists, technicians and administrators, up from about 800 working now in crowded facilities built in the 1960s.

Officials said the new USAMRIID will feature the latest in biocontainment technology to prevent accidental releases of dangerous organisms such as anthrax, the plague bacteria and the Ebola virus. Bio-Safety Level 4 lab space, reserved for the most lethal organisms, will grow by nearly 80 percent to 17,000 square feet.

Although their primary mission is developing vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools for soldiers on the battlefield, scientists in the five-story, 800,000-square-foot structure will share their discoveries with neighboring labs operated by the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Health and Human Services, comprising an interagency biodefense campus at Fort Detrick.

"We can't support our fighting force if we don't protect the whole nation," the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, told The Associated Press.

He said USAMRIID researchers have been involved in the fight against the West Nile virus, SARS, the avian flu and the swine flu.