Race against time to replace major disease control lab

The CDC lab in Atlanta – responsible for storing and studying some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens such as smallpox and Ebola – is showing worrying signs of wear and tear decades earlier than planned, the agency says.

The 13-year-old site is already wearing down, sparking an official request for a new building to host some of the world’s deadliest microbes including the latest, most lethal mutations of the flu and the almost-untreatable Marburg virus. “The concerns are that the facility we’ve been in now is beginning to show signs of age,” said Dr. Inger Damon, head of the division of high consequence pathogens and pathology at the facility, on Friday as cited by Stat News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is asking the US Congress for $400 million to build a new, and hopefully improved, high security laboratory. Approximately $350 million will be spent on the facility itself while the additional $50 million will go towards related work.

The current facility, a 400,000-sq-ft concrete building located on the CDC’s main campus on the outskirts of Atlanta, cost $214 million to build and was opened in 2005. HDR Inc., the architecture firm behind the project reportedly estimated the building would boast a 50-year lifespan. That bold prediction appears to have fallen 32 years short, as current estimates indicate the building needs to be replaced by 2023.

Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said that “the longer it takes to replace the facility, the more likely there will be a failure. And if there’s a failure, we lose an essential line of defense” against disease threats.

The CDC Laboratory is one of 13 operational or planned maximum security, Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) labs in the US. BSL-4 labs handle the deadliest microbes known to man and therefore require the most stringent security measures possible. These labs have to be housed in a separate or extremely isolated structure from other labs, and must have a dedicated air supply and exhaust system as well as multiple, comprehensive decontamination systems throughout. The lab uses eye-scanners to give employees access to the labyrinthine decontamination facilities.

As with the lower level BSL-3 labs, the exits at BSL-4 facilities have two sets of automatically-closing and locking doors, and an air flow system that directs air from clean areas to potentially contaminated areas only – never vice-versa. In addition, staff must wear lab coats, gloves and face shields and have to at times work in full body, air-supplied pressure suits within biological safety cabinets.

Worryingly, the current facilities reportedly experienced a decontamination shower failure in 2009 and a fire in a low-risk lab in 2015. Construction on the new facility will take four years.

“We’ve always tried to maintain that continuity. I think there’s just too much that’s unpredictable,” Damon added, speaking to Stat news. “When you need that facility … you want to have it available. You don’t know when the next SARS is going to happen, or the next large Ebola outbreak.”

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