Sunday, January 28, 2007

SJ County bids for national Bio and Agro-Defense Facility lab

Note: The location of a national facility will attract other service providers and users to adjourning areas such as Solano County. Lawrence Livermore Labs have existing research relationships with UC Davis which is located in Solano and Yolo Counties in Davis and near Dixon and the biotechnology cluster in Vacaville. Comments by Mike Ammann, President Solano EDC.
SJ County bids for national lab


STOCKTON — Under a proposal being considered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would become the first place in the country where scientists could study even the most controlled forms of zoonotic diseases sickening both humans and animals.

Diseases such as West Nile virus, avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and foot-and-mouth disease would come under the microscope. Site 300 near Tracy would be outfitted with a lab to study the diseases in animals. And scientists would be charged with the additional duty of diagnosing suspected cases from across the country, University of California and lab officials told the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The university system runs the lab.

Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday for a resolution offering preliminary support. The move is viewed as a boost to the lab's application.

"Everyone still has questions, but we're never going to get answers to those questions if we don't move forward," Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said.

The site is one of 14 locations under consideration nationwide by the Department of Homeland Security. It already whittled the list from 28 proposals.

Supervisor Steve Gutierrez, who cast the lone vote against the resolution, cited uncertainty about what, exactly, would go on at Site 300 — and language in the resolution stating research activities "would help to safeguard and support the general public."

"I would like to support it in concept, but the most important part for me is making it contingent on further study," he said. "I want to make it contingent on public safety."

'Level 4' air, waste fully treated

Strict protocols assure that diseases stay in labs, said Pam Hul-linger, Lawrence Livermore's lead for food and agricultural security.

In the "level 4" security areas, for the most controlled diseases, the primary focus "is to protect people and the environment. People wear fully protective clothing, they take two showers, go through several stages," Hullinger said. "The air and waste is fully treated to protect the environment."

Level 4 diseases include the notorious Ebola virus. It is responsible for deaths in Africa by hemorrhagic fever.

But that would be an unlikely disease for study at Site 300 because it infects people but not animals other than primates, Hul-linger said. So it wouldn't seem to fit the proposed lab's zoonotic mission on diseases affecting both.

More likely, at the most extreme, scientists would work with the Hendra virus, predominantly seen in Australia and affecting people and horses, and Nipah, usually found in Asia and affecting pigs and people, Hullinger said. Both diseases can kill animals and humans.

Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the proposed lab would be dedicated to such controlled study. People who enter a level 4 lab take off all of their clothes and enter a second stage of containment where they get dressed before entering a third stage where they don protective gear including breathing apparatuses before entering the final, fourth, area where the diseases are held. When they leave, they repeat the process in reverse: showering inside the gear, then taking two additional showers before leaving.

Clothing worn inside protective gear is either disposable or laundered within the facility.

Under the protocols, the carcasses of test animals are fed into a "tissue digester," a chemical bath that disintegrates them inside the lab.

Now, the closest facility with level 4 clearance is Winnipeg, Canada, Hullinger said. Plum Island, off the northeastern tip of Long Island in New York, does level 3 testing for contagions such as foot-and-mouth disease.

If authorities in California were to suspect such an outbreak, under a best-case scenario, it would take more than 13hours to get the sample to Plum Island: two hours of packaging, two hours to get to an airport and on a plane, six hours across country, a 2½-hour drive to the dock and a 45-minute ferry ride, said Hullinger, who has made that trip.

In comparison, a sample from a local animal could be at Site 300 within 2½ hours, she said.

Robert Sarvey, who lives near Site 300, bemoaned the logic.

"I think with today's easy transport and airplanes, there will be quick response no matter where the site is located," he told supervisors.

He pointed out the potential for accidents and the absence of local jurisdiction, and urged supervisors to wait to vote until after the Tracy City Council votes Feb. 6.

The county's Agricultural Advisory Board voted its unanimous support of the Site 300 proposal. Joe Petersen, a member of the committee, said, "We looked at the safety, and we quelled our concern when we found out most of the facilities are inside cities," he told supervisors. "We figured if they operate in cities, we can relax about what's going on. … If you take safety into account, this actually benefits safety."

Being that California is the biggest agricultural producer in the country, it "has a lot to lose if we get foot-and-mouth disease," Hullinger said.

County Agricultural Commissioner Scott Hudson said a report shows such an outbreak would cost California an estimated $1million to $2 million each hour it went undetected or that response was delayed.

The proposal is the only one for the West Coast, Hullinger said.

Representatives from the Homeland Security Department are expected to visit the sites in April, and whittle the list to two or three finalists in June.

If authorities select Site 300, an environmental review would begin, at which point county supervisors stated their intention would be to pay close attention to safety plans and local issues such as traffic.

A finalist would be chosen in 2008. According to the time frame, the lab would become active in 2013 or 2014.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at 599-8760 or


ISSUE: Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Site 300 in Tracy

WHAT: One of 14 proposed labs for studying zoonotic diseases that infect people and animals with diseases such as West Nile virus, bird flu and SARS

WHO: The University of California proposes running it.

WHO DECIDES: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

WHEN: In June, officials are expected to whittle the list to two or three finalists; a lab site would be selected in 2008.


The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday for preliminary support.

The county's Agricultural Advisory Board unanimously supports the proposal.

Tracy City Council votes Feb. 6.

Posted on 01/24/07 00:00:00

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