Campus joins UC biodefense lab proposal
May 5, 2006
By Dave Jones
UC Davis is a major partner in the UC system's recently declared "expression of interest" to develop a national biological and agricultural defense center on the grounds of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The Department of Homeland Security would oversee the new center and envisions it as a "next-generation" facility for the safe study of diseases such as foot-and-mouth in livestock, and zoonotic diseases such as avian flu — with zoonotic referring to diseases that are communicable from animals to people under natural conditions.
This requires "safe, secure and state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories," a presidential security directive declares. Homeland Security officials say the need is more than can be handled at the government's 50-year-old Plum Island Animal Defense Center in New York.
UC's expression of interest, one of 29 that the government received by the March 31 deadline, represents a consortium that includes the Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles and San Francisco campuses, as well as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The application touts UC's expertise and resources as the largest academic research institution in the world, with specific mention of the university's excellence in agricultural science and veterinary training.
In choosing the center's site, said Dean Bennie Osburn of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the government would be wise to consider California because of its status as a major entry point for food and people, and its location along migratory paths for birds and marine species that can transmit infectious diseases.
Homeland Security officials say the new center will carry on Plum Island's work in protecting U.S. agriculture from bioterrorist attacks, and put new emphasis on public health threats from "emerging high consequence zoonotic pathogens." A key job will be developing and licensing medical countermeasures such as vaccines.
UC proposes to put the center on Experimental Test Site 300, situated in the rolling hills within the boundaries of the national laboratory near Livermore in the East Bay. The federal government owns the property and UC already runs the lab.
Osburn said the biocontainment facilities at the proposed center would be larger than anything available now in the western United States. UC Davis, for example, has the capacity to keep mice in biocontainment — but no bigger animals.
At the federal government's proposed center, Osburn said, scientists could confine such animals as crows, sheep and cattle.
"What we're really after is protecting humans and animals from diseases," Osburn said.
He said biocontainment facilities today boast "construction and confinement that is superb." Nevertheless, in a letter of support accompanying the expression of interest, he described the proposed site as "an ideal rural setting." It is five to six miles away from the nearest community, the city of Tracy, Osburn noted in an interview.
UC Davis sought a federal grant three years ago to build a 300,000-square-foot biocontainment lab on the central campus, sparking strong opposition among faculty and staff, and from others in the Davis community. The National Institutes of Health eventually awarded grants to two other universities: Boston University Medical Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Now it is Homeland Security officials who are looking for new biocontainment labs. In September, the department plans to announce which applications have been selected for the next step: environmental impact statements. Homeland Security estimates that construction will begin in 2009 and the center will be operational in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
In the UC expression of interest, Davis dominates a list of existing UC programs, centers and capabilities considered relevant to the government's proposed biological and agricultural defense center.
The UC Davis references include the School of Medicine and the School of Veterinary Medicine, and their collaborative effort called the Center for Comparative Medicine; Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center; Veterinary Medicine Extension Unit; Center for Vectorborne Diseases; Equine Viral Disease Laboratory; and Wildlife Health Center.
Also: International Laboratory for Molecular Biology, College of Agricultural and Environmental Science, California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, Center for Food Animal Health and Dairy Food Safety Laboratory.
The expression of interest also notes the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis.
All this, plus four other UC medical schools, two schools of public health, UC's agricultural experiment stations, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory "makes ours probably one of the stronger applications," Osburn said.
UC's 20-page expression of interest was accompanied by 18 letters of support. The writers include U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, whose district takes in Livermore, and state Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy; A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture; and several farm and commodity organizations. Also supportive are Scott Haggerty, a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and Livermore Mayor Marshall H. Kamena, although most of Site 300 lies in San Joaquin County, as does Tracy, the nearest community.
Osburn noted a critical need for new biocontainment facilities in the West. Today, he said, Colorado is the closest place where west coast researchers could find a place to keep crows in confinement for a West Nile virus project, for example.
He cited classic swine fever and hantavirus as other research topics for the new center. Another would be bubonic plague, said Osburn, who noted the April 18 report of Los Angeles County's first case of the plague since 1984.
"We really don't have the lab facilities to work on that," he said.
Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "We could do that type of research in our labs if we took appropriate precautions," he said. Since Sept. 11, though, the government has established new criteria for some 80 infectious agents, and the criteria require new facilities.
'A natural fit'
The Department of Homeland Security fact sheet notes that the federal budget for 2005-06 allocated $23 million for a needs assessment and design process for the new center. Money has not been allocated for construction of what the department is calling the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF. Homeland Security anticipates that the center would employ 250 to 300 full-time research and support personnel.
Such a center is "a natural fit" for the University of California and the state, a UC fact sheet states. It continues: "With multiple ports of entry for food and people, California could also be considered one of the most vulnerable states in the nation."
UC's application states that "UC and its partner institutions have world-class scientific capabilities and experience in managing complex research projects, operations and facilities, with notable success in transforming 'research into reality.'
"In addition, UC Davis has one of the nation's best educational programs in agricultural and veterinary science and manages the largest and most progressive veterinary diagnostic laboratory system in the world."
The diagnostics lab system "picks up one or two new diseases a year," Osburn said.
"We have to maintain vigilance, be ready to develop new vaccines and therapeutic agents to control these new diseases."
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