Biowarfare threat a business opportunity for laboratory industry

Published 23 October 2006

Planned expansion of secure bioweapons labs creates a demand for equipment; water testing devices a critical need; automated cyanide analyzers, total organic content, and purge-and-trap sample concentrators among other specialized tools

America has remained unscathed by biological weapons ever since the still-unsolved anthrax attacks of 2001, but biologists and epidemiologists are not resting on their laurels. They know their own work, while important, has not had as much to do with this as have effective security planning and — we hope — terrorist incompetence in developing and deploying effective strains. Yet the terrorists will someday be successful, and so the scientific community is hard at work, and so too are those who develop the laboratory tools and procedures required. Has there ever, since the Sputnick launch revolutionized American science education, been such a good time to be a glazier of test tubes or a Bunson burner manufacturer?

When we say that there has been a “biosafety lab explosion,” we do not mean to suggest safety concerns. Instead, we mean to point out that, in addition to the thirteen biosafety safety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories (those used to study agents that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease for which no vaccine or therapy is available, and which require a variety of secure rooms, hoods, showers, and full body protective equipment), eight other organizations are currently looking to construct their own. In addition, twenty-five new BSL-3s (used to study agents that can be transmitted through the air and cause potentially lethal infection) are currently planned or under construction. Government funding, particularly Project BioShield, is driving this expansion, and the expansion can be expensive. A BSL-4 facility can cost well over $1,000 per square foot and take three to five years to construct. Though not a dominant contributor, these costs include legal and public relations fees associated with convincing communities to allow their construction. As one can easily imagine, many towns do not like the idea of smallpox and anthrax in their neighborhoods.

Of course, once these news BSL facilities are constructed, they will need to be equipped with the latest in testing technology, including automated cyanide analyzers, total organic content (TOC)(for continuous on-line monitoring for homeland security applications analyzers), and purge-and-trap sample concentrators (for assessing environmental spills). “Testing of water samples has become the most prevalent homeland security testing application,” said Gary Engelhart of College Station, Texas-based OI Analytical. “This includes drinking water, influent water sources, and water spills.” This is not a large industry, experts say, but is growing, in large part due to an effort by the federal government to provide grants to municipalities to confront the threat. The 2002 Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act, for example, requires that water utilities conduct vulnerability assessments and prepare emergency response plans and then submit those assessments to the EPA for approval. Relevant state laws also make similar demands.

Investors take note: According to Engelhart, although the laboratory instrumentation market for homeland security is growing, the number of firms has not kept pace. “The market will be shaped by infrastructure and facilities that need to be monitored and protected,” he said. “Other industrialized nations are and will invest in instrumentation they deem appropriate.”