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Friday, July 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

UW gives up on plans for biolab

Seattle Times staff reporters

Lacking money and community support, the University of Washington has ditched plans to build a regional biocontainment laboratory.

UW President Mark Emmert said yesterday that the university had failed to raise the $35 million needed to land a $25 million federal grant applied for in December.

Emmert said the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had contacted the university just two weeks ago asking for a fund-raising plan by tomorrow.

"We were a little surprised they wanted to move so quickly on this," Emmert said. "I'm very disappointed we weren't able to follow this to its conclusion."

He said the university had not identified any money to contribute. The additional money could have come from federal, state or institutional sources, he said, or a combination of the three.

The biodefense lab, proposed for UW's south campus near Portage Bay, ran into a storm of community opposition after news spread of the grant application. The lab could have been used to study anthrax and other bioterrorism agents. Initial plans were to study rabbit fever, plague and the tropical disease melioidosis, said Albert Berger, the vice dean for research at the UW School of Medicine.

"We're leaving $25 million of federal funding on the table. It's very sad," Berger said. "It's a very unique opportunity that we are not taking advantage of."

Berger said the lab would have benefited the region's security. In the event of a terrorism attack with biological weapons, the lab would have provided a place to detect and gather information about the attack and then formulate a response.

"I hope our existing public-health facilities can respond," Berger said. "I'm sure they will."

But opponents were relieved yesterday.

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Kent Wills, president of the University Park Community Club, said his group considered the urban location inappropriate for such a lab, and worried that deadly pathogens could escape and be distributed by air or water.

Club member Ruedi Risler, a UW research engineer, added that he thought the lab could have become a terrorist target.

"Even the university acknowledged it would have a bull's-eye on it. ... They said it would be bomb-proof," he said.

Emmert said he listened to community concerns.

"We were still pursuing answers to the safety and security issues, and they were not yet satisfactorily answered to me," he said. "We were still weeks or months away from those answers."

The 56,000-square-foot lab would have been one of more than a dozen that the government wants as part of a nationwide biodefense network. It would have housed more than 100 faculty and staff members.

The Level 3 lab would have been one rung below Level 4 laboratories, which handle the most dangerous diseases, such as Ebola. There is a Level 4 lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Groups in Massachusetts have fought construction of a second university-based Level 4 lab at Boston University.

The UW acknowledged some of the local community concerns in internal documents, including a May 12 report by Vice Provost Steven Olswang. It warned that community trust had been "dramatically undermined" and building the lab on campus "would be a devastating, if not final, blow to the community's attempt to work with and trust the University."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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