Lawrenceville, PA bioterror lab opening on hold indefinitely

Published 5 September 2008

A state-of-the-art, $5.6 million BioLevel 3 lab was supposed to open in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, in 2002;

Some people in Pittsburgh have come to believe that, at this rate, the war on bioterrorism may be over before the Allegheny County Health Department can use its new, state-of-the-art, $5.6 million laboratory in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. Another equipment problem — this time related to the lab’s sophisticated ventilation system — is indefinitely delaying the opening of the lab project, originally proposed in 2002 and designed to test for the most deadly bioterrorism materials like anthrax, plague and botulism as well as a host of other infectious diseases.

There’s a variety of issues, the most serious dealing with the negative air pressure ventilation system for the Level 3 laboratory where the most serious pathogens will be tested,” said Health Department executive director Dr. Bruce Dixon at yesterday’s Board of Health meeting. “I hope it’s fixable. A lot of money has been invested. I think we’re making progress but it’s been a slow and arduous process.”

Don Hopey writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that in addition to fixing the ventilation problems so no pathogens are released to the outside environment, a door must be replaced, a lab maintenance training program must be implemented and the facility must receive federal certification before the county can open it. Dr. Dixon said he has been meeting weekly with the county’s Public Works Department, which is overseeing construction of the 10,000-square-foot, bioterrorism lab on the Health Department’s Arsenal Campus. Rycon Construction Co. is the general contractor.

The ventilation issues are the latest of a handful of funding, design, and construction problems to plague the project, which was originally conceived shortly after the anthrax scare of September 2001, when anthrax spores were sent through the mail. At the time, the state’s only Bio-Safety Level 3 Health Laboratory, in Chester County, was flooded with requests to analyze suspicious substances, and a new Level 3 lab in Allegheny County was proposed as a needed backup.

In 2002 the county was promised $500,000 in federal antiterrorism funds, funneled through the state Health Department, to build the new lab, but lost the money when construction estimates soared and it couldn’t pull the trigger on a location for the building. The county did spend $400,000 at that time to buy high-tech lab equipment capable of analyzing bioterrorism pathogens. But that equipment has been boxed and stored at the county’s cramped infectious disease testing laboratory in Oakland.

Additional delays occurred when the county had to change plans to house the medical examiner’s office in the lab building. Construction of the two-story red brick building finally began late in 2006. It was finished in December 2007, but the county could not get an occupancy permit for the building because the water line to the building was too narrow to support the building’s sprinkler system. That water line was dug up and replaced, but now the ventilation system is acting up.

When the ventilation system is fixed, Larry Milchak, a former University of Pittsburgh biological safety officer now working in Wisconsin, will inspect it to determine if it meets federal biological safety guidelines and can be certified as part of the federal Laboratory Response Network. “We can’t have any flaws in the ventilation system when we’re dealing with dangerous pathogens,” Dr. Dixon said. “We want to be certified and get a letter submitted to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control]. The FBI wants to be able to use it and I’d love to get it operational.” Asked when that might be, he said, “I’m hopeful it won’t be terribly long but we have no definite date.”