Location of biological agents is top secret in Maryland

by jeeg 1. April 2011 00:01

High-level containment laboratories and storage facilities that handle dangerous biological agents exist in Frederick County outside the secured gates of Fort Detrick, but state law mandates that the number and location of each remains confidential.

That is making difficult the work of the fledgling Containment Laboratory Citizens Advisory Committee, appointed by Frederick city and county officials in November to act as a liaison between concerned residents and the labs.

Scientists in the labs study select biological pathogens that can cause severe illness and even death, such as anthrax and West Nile virus.

"Companies obviously have the right to keep their proprietary information to themselves. But communities and local governments have a need to know about activities that could impact health and safety," said Beth Willis, chairwoman of the advisory committee, in an email. "That's basic. I don't understand why this information is not available to the public. The [advisory committee] needs to find out a lot more about this."

But the only way the information can be made public is for the Maryland General Assembly to change state law, said Jim Svrjcek, division chief of the Office of Laboratory Emergency Preparedness and Response in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Since 2002, Svrjcek's agency has maintained a central registry of any person or entity that possesses the "select agents," and only shares the information with emergency management directors, county health officers and local law enforcement.

The state defines a select agent as pathogens that could be used "to wreak havoc on human life, the economy or agriculture," he said.

Confidentiality is critical to maintain the security and safety of the labs, Svrjcek said.

Lt. Dennis Dudley of the Frederick Police Department and chair of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, which plans emergency responses to hazardous materials incidents, said he is aware of the location of sites storing or researching select agents in Frederick.

Maintaining confidentiality, he said, is a way to ensure public safety. "People who are on the edge or fringe groups could take advantage of that information and endanger people more than the facility that is working with these agents," he said.

Any entity that works with hazardous material, whether it is biological, chemical or radiological must submit emergency plans to local law enforcement, Dudley said.

Seamus Mooney, director of the county's Department of Emergency Preparedness, said the county routinely updates its plans to react to biological or chemical incidents through the Frederick County Health Department.

Information about what goes on in the high-level biocontainment laboratories at Fort Detrick is not subject to confidentiality because the Department of Defense, which operates the labs, has more security than those located outside the gates, according to Svrjcek of the state Health Department. "And they have troops to call on," he added.

David Kaye, a member of the Containment Laboratory Citizens Advisory Committee, told the group at its March 15 meeting that there are at least two laboratories working with select agents in Frederick, but could not say where he got the information.

One lab is the Southern Research Institute on Aviation Way in Frederick; he could not name the second.

The group asked Alderman Karen L. Young (D) if she could help find out, and she enlisted the help of her husband, Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Dist.3) of Frederick.

Sen. Young said in an interview that the Health Department has denied his request, but that he is seeking guidance from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General. "They could still turn me down, but I am trying," he said.

Southern Research Institute in Frederick is a branch of a not-for-profit company that focuses on high-risk and often life-threatening agents for the development of treatments and vaccines.

"Our infectious disease team offers scientific expertise in microbiology and immunology and provides a range of laboratory research services focused on drug and vaccine evaluations for select agents/emerging pathogens," reads its website.

The institute's media contact did not immediately return a request for comment.

The public became aware of Southern Research Institute's existence in Frederick after workers there accidentally shipped a sample of live anthrax to a children's research hospital in California in 2004.

A shipment of what was supposed to be dead anthrax was sent by the Southern Research Institute to the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute. It was later found to contain live bacteria. Believing that the anthrax was dead, the workers handled the live agent with inadequate personal and environmental biosafety precautions, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC investigated after being notified about the exposures. No one was injured, but eight lab workers were exposed and took medication to prevent inhalation anthrax.

Katherine Heerbrandt, The Gazette


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