Wednesday, August 03, 2005

U. of Washington gives up on biodefense lab

The universities couldn't wait to get their mitts on some of that luscious bioterrorism money. Forget about the fact that the task and the sponsors were bogus and morally and intellectually repugnant. The scientists knew what to do with the money and it would be put to good use. Yeah, right.

One of the grantees, Boston University, has fallen afoul of its local community, which it treated with disdain, producing a deserved public relations backlash. Its lack of transparency also caused consternation in the medical and public health community, with 160 area scientists signing an open letter expressing concern about the true nature of the “biodefense” laboratory. What few have noticed is that the laboratory also comes at a substantial cost to the university. While BU will receive a $128 million construction grant, it is also required to put up $50 million of its own money. Half of that will come from the resource poor Boston Medical Center, main hospital of Boston's inner city. For BMC, $25 million is not chump change. But the Big Fool Said to Push On, so BU is still going for the “gold” as a boost to its status and prestige in the infectious disease world.

Not so the University of Washington, who just withdrew its plan to build a similar “biocontainment” (read biodefense) laboratory because it couldn’t come up with the University’s $35 million in matching funds (The Chronicle for Higher Education; subscription only, alas). Admittedly their deal wasn’t as good as BU’s since NIH was only agreeing to provide $25 million, less than 1:1 match. It was also for a level 3 (BSL3) facility, not the scarier but rarer BSL4 at BU. But the problems were similar:
Part of the university's problem raising the money may have stemmed from local opposition to the project. Many residents of northeastern Seattle, where the university is located, protested the planned lab, citing its possible threat to public health and its potential as a terrorist target.

A community leader said the university had tried to play down the safety issue, and to undermine the protests, even though a report in May from the vice provost had warned that building the lab "would be a devastating, if not final, blow to the community's attempt to work with and trust the university."

The local leader, Kent Wills, president of the University Park Community Club, said the university "didn't validate many of our concerns."

Some faculty members also opposed the lab because, they said, the university was not open about its plans at first.
So the story is the same but the ending is happier for UW than BU, at least if you care about public health and the distortion “biodefense” is causing to its priorities. Not to mention the other problems with that huge steaming pile of shit called Biodefense. Because we already mentioned them.