A recently released National Research Council report requested by Congress finds several problems in the environmental impact statement for the new USAMRIID building, but adds that current safety procedures and regulations at the lab meet or exceed accepted standards, giving the committee that wrote the report a "high degree of confidence" that appropriate protections for workers and the public are in place.
Beginning last fall, the committee held public meetings to gather information from USAMRIID officials, EIS contractors, Fort Detrick emergency personnel, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, and citizens from the Frederick community. Committee members also met with officials from Frederick Memorial Hospital and Frederick County's emergency management and health departments.
The panel's confidence that appropriate measures are in place to protect Fort Detrick workers and surrounding communities was based on several points, including the fact that the new USAMRIID is being constructed under standards set by NIH and CDC, which must inspect and approve the facilities. In addition, the building will be required to meet stringent military standards. The committee also noted that physical security will be greater because USAMRIID is located on an Army post.
Panel members commended the Army for being a leader in developing cutting-edge requirements for high- and maximum-containment laboratory facilities. In addition, USAMRIID has taken steps to improve safety when problems have been identified, and the new facilities will operate under even more stringent guidelines than were previously in place.
Although the Army has taken the lead in establishing a robust biosurety program to govern access to risky pathogens, no program can stop all threats of theft or misuse of infectious agents, the committee said. More formalized training for laboratory workers on their individual and collective responsibility and accountability is needed, along with increased attention to behavioral signals that may identify "at risk" personnel.
USAMRIID, Fort Detrick, and Frederick County have resources and partnerships in place to deal with emergency situations, but the committee had concerns that not enough clinicians are available with the necessary training in diagnosing and treating diseases caused by organisms studied at USAMRIID. It recommended that specialist physicians be on hand to consult on unusual infectious diseases, as well as to provide coordination between USAMRIID scientists and community medical personnel.
Committee members also noted that communication with the public has not been adequate to allay citizen concerns and suggested a more proactive, two-way communication effort. Suggestions include developing fact sheets; holding an open house for the new facility or opening a visitor center; including a community member on the Institutional Biosafety Committee; and creating a community advisory board.
Another point raised by the panel concerns the "maximum credible event" scenarios described in the EIS. These MCEs include a discussion of the estimated effects of Ebola virus and the bacteria that cause Q fever being accidentally released from an exhaust stack. However, the committee said it could not verify the estimate that such an event would lead to insignificant ground concentrations in the surrounding environment.
Although an exceptionally large aerosol release of a pathogen might pose a health risk, this is an inappropriate MCE because there are no reasonably foreseeable scenarios where such a release could occur, the committee noted. One panel member pointed out that the redundant safety systems at USAMRIID would reasonably preclude such an event.
The committee also criticized the EIS for what it called inadequate characterization of individual risk of exposure or infection, saying the document did not consider potential exposures to workers and others on post, or how the spread of a pathogen would be affected by population size and density. Although Congress mandated the new lab be located at Fort Detrick as part of the National Interagency Biodefense Campus, the committee said it would have been appropriate for the EIS to consider risks at an alternative location, such as in a less populated area, which would have provided a comparison helpful for evaluating risk-management strategies.
Despite these issues, the committee determined that it would not be useful to propose specific revisions to the EIS given that construction of the new USAMRIID has begun. Rather, it said the Army should develop new guidelines for conducting hazard assessments of biocontainment facilities.
USAMRIID officials have met with USAMRMC, Fort Detrick garrison and others to review the report's recommendations and set a course forward. According to Col. John P. Skvorak, USAMRIID commander, some of the recommendations will fall solely to USAMRIID to implement. Others that involve outside agencies may take more time to coordinate.
The study, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, is available on the National Academy of Sciences website at http://www.national-academies.org