Biosafety Lab-Level 4 dedicated in Galveston, Texas

Published 14 November 2008

The $174 million, 186,267-square-foot lab will employ 300 people; the lab is one of two approved in 2003 by NIH (the second is being built in Boston); critics question placing a BSL-4 lab on a barrier island vulnerable to hurricanes

What with the damage wreaked by Hurricane Ike, there is not much to cheer about in Galveston, Texas — except, perhaps, this: the University of Texas Medical Branch has this week dedicate a $174 million biodefense laboratory where researchers will develop drugs and vaccines to battle infectious diseases, including deadly germs terrorists might use. Indeed, Laura Elder of the Galveston County Daily News writes that “Dedication of the Galveston National Laboratory is a rare reason to celebrate at an institution left in a precarious state by Hurricane Ike.”

Researchers at the 186,267-square-foot lab, which will employ about 300 people, will study such pathogens as Anthrax, avian flu, bubonic plague, typhus, West Nile, influenza, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, among others.

One of two approved in 2003 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) after the 9/11 attacks, the laboratory would attract leading scientists and might pull biotech firms to the island, city and medical branch officials say. “It will serve to reinforce the strength of the biomedical research in the Galveston and Houston community — and we are really one community,” said Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of the university’s Institute for Human Infections and Immunity. “It will help to attract industry — not just research — but manufacturing arms of the industry that should have a significant economic consequence for the county and Galveston.”

Officials expect the lab to pump about $1.4 billion into the state’s economy throughout twenty years. As has been the case with other biolabs around the country, some environmentalists and residents say it puts the city’s population at risk if pathogens escaped. The second laboratory, being built at Boston University Medical Center, has met local resistance, including a lawsuit filed in 2006 by opponents claiming an environmental study of the lab was inadequate see 23 May 2008 HS Daily Wire story). Elder writes that island residents have been more receptive, but some observers have questioned the logic of putting such a facility on a barrier island vulnerable to hurricanes. For example, the line on maps meteorologists use to depict dead-center of Hurricane Ike’s 13 September landfall passes just blocks west of the medical branch campus.

Storm surge flooded 750,000 square feet in buildings there, caused about $710 million in expenses, knocked out most operations, including John Sealy Hospital, and left thousands of employees in limbo. The Galveston National Laboratory building, though, was unharmed. The high-security facility, made of precast concrete standing on 800 pylons extending 120 feet into the ground, was built to withstand hurricanes. Such Biosafety Level 4 labs have unparalleled safety records, Lemon said. “BSL-4 labs have gone over 40 years without a single release,” Lemon said. “They have multiple layers of redundant safety and containment measures; the people at the greatest risk from pathogens are those who work within the lab.”