As the U.S. military readies 4000 troops to deal with the growing emergence of the Ebola virus in West Africa, a little-known biosecurity lab on Point Loma could find itself playing a key role in the medical combat.
"Everything possible will be done to mitigate risks of exposure to Ebola by U.S. military personnel deployed to Liberia to contain the epidemic," according to an October 7 Pentagon news release regarding a statement made that day by Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Africa Command.
"There are no plans for the U.S. military to provide direct care to Ebola patients," Rodriguez is quoted as saying. "Personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center will, however, test for Ebola at mobile labs from samples collected from area clinics and health care providers."
"Pressed by reporters to explain the risks to Americans operating the mobile labs, Rodriguez strongly discounted the likelihood of contamination. 'It’s a very, very high standard that these people have operated in all their lives, and this is their primary skill,' he emphasized. 'This is not just medical guys trained to do this.'"
"Seven such labs are expected to be set up in Liberia for Ebola testing."
At least some of the expertise may come from San Diego, where the Naval Health Research Center, a subordinate command of the medical research center, has operated a so-called Biosafety Level 3 laboratory on Ballast Point, just down the hill from the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, according to a federal procurement document. Specialized research on deadly viruses and other biohazards has reportedly been conducted there since 2009.
Biosafety Level 3 labs, known in the bio warfare trade as BSL-3s, perform work with "indigenous or exotic agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal disease through the inhalation route of exposure," according to a 2002 presentation handed out at a UCSD seminar on biohazard management.
"Laboratory personnel must receive specific training in handling pathogenic and potentially lethal agents, and must be supervised by scientists competent in handling infectious agents and associated procedures."
The BSL-3 designation is second only to BSL-4, which is "required for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease that is frequently fatal, for which there are no vaccines or treatments, or a related agent with unknown risk of transmission."
But keeping its labs secure enough to meet legal and regulatory requirements has apparently been a challenge for the Navy. Last fall the Pentagon solicited bids for architectural and engineering plans it said were needed to fix numerous flaws at the San Diego facility.
"An [architectural and engineering] assessment is required...to provide a revised design plan to improve the facility for BSL-3 laboratory, as necessary," says the September 10, 2013, notice.
Among the needed changes, according to the document: "Rewelding and repair of the [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] ducts on the second floor. The lack of welding in this duct can cause the release of infectious agents to the environment."
Additional alterations included the addition of "two surveillance cameras inside the bio-containment unit due to the presence of blind spots"; moving "security access panel to another location, outside the laboratory"; and installing "a visual and audible pressure alarm for the [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] system in the containment suit."
Another safety-related task was to "Verify the existence, use and testing of door alarms, [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] fan failure, and door interlocking system and [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] interlocking system alarms. Install any missing items if necessary."
Though the problems sounded serious enough, the notice for repairs was cancelled the next day, September 11, with the announcement that "This project has been postponed until a later date due to issues with funding."
According to its website, the Alabama-based architectural firm of Sherlock, Smith & Adams received a contract for an "in-depth assessment" and “Deficiency Tabulation“ of the Point Loma Naval Health Research Center, including "Bio-Safety Level 2 and 3 Laboratories which were evaluated as part of the study."
The build-out of biosafety labs and their possible danger to the public has been controversial in some quarters. A plan to build a BSL-3 lab at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, center of the nation’s nuclear bomb research, was criticized this summer by Department of Energy inspector general Gregory Friedman, according to an August 20 report by the Center for Public Integrity.
"Friedman wrote that the $9.5 million proposal had been made without fully assessing the need for and cost effectiveness of the project, and that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs Los Alamos and other energy labs, 'needs to fully reassess its need for biological research facilities.'"
"Los Alamos completed an environmental assessment in 2002 of plans to build two BSL-3 labs. The facility to house them was constructed a year later. The project was delayed for years, however, because of a lawsuit by two advocacy groups, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Tri-Valley CAREs, located in Livermore, California."
UPDATE 10/10/14, 11:55 a.m. — A spokeswoman for the Navy called back this morning to say the Point Loma BSL-3 lab has been shut down pending required improvements, adding that a BSL-2 facility is still operational. She added that the San Diego subcommand wasn’t tied to the anti-Ebola work in Africa being conducted by the Naval Medical Research Center.