Officials tout biodefense lab safety

Officials recently touted security measures at a newly renovated Army biodefense laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.

Researchers working for the U.S. Army Institute of Infectious Diseases are monitored by video cameras, watched through windows and tracked using the latest electronic sensors that detect when someone has entered or exited the lab, according to the Associated Press.

"We want to make sure we work safely and that we come home to our families every day as safe as possible," Lisa Hensley, the chief of viral therapeutics at USAMRIID, said, the AP reports.

Hensley recently pointed out improvements during a tour of a renovated USAMRIID Biosafety Level-4 laboratory suite. BSL-4 labs are reserved for research on the world’s most lethal and highly infectious diseases for which no approved treatment exists.

Scientists working in BSL-4 environments research viruses like Ebola and Marburg in negative air pressure laboratories that keep germs from escaping. They wear protective outfits that resemble space suits to avoid infection.

USAMRIID’s mission is to develop countermeasures against threats to American troops, but the research conducted at Ft. Detrick can also lead to new vaccines and treatments that can be used for the general population, according to the AP.

Since the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, federal spending on biodefense has increased. The attacks were eventually blamed on a USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008. Many of his colleagues dispute the FBI’s findings.

Today there are six BSL-4 labs in the United States located in various places, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are currently six more BSL-4 labs being planned, including a replacement for the older facilities at Ft. Detrick. The new BSL-4 lab will be part of an interagency biodefense complex.