When It’s Ebola, NIMBY Makes Sense

UC Davis may one day house the Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases and its Biosafety Level 4 labs, equipped to study deadly pathogens such as ebola, anthrax, and hantavirus. In February, the UC Regents submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to build the $200 million research facility, and the university is a lead contender for funding. The plan has generated intense opposition from Davis residents and faculty concerned about safety, security, and the possibility of classified bioweapons research at the lab.
UC Davis Executive Vice Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw assured citizens: “The record shows that such facilities have operated safely in this country and around the world.” But security breaches at UC-managed Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National laboratories, the February escape of a monkey from UCD’s California National Primate Research Center, and the Department of Homeland Security takeover of a biocontainment laboratory in New York have heightened fears.
Samantha McCarthy, a ten-year Davis resident, says she’ll move her family if the lab is built. As a member of activist group Stop UCD Biolab Now, McCarthy is part of the opposition movement that convinced the Davis City Council and Senator Barbara Boxer to write letters urging NIAID to build the lab elsewhere. The letters reversed both the neutral stance of the City Council and Boxer’s previous support for the lab. “People do not want this thing, and we’ve made sure that voice is being heard,” says McCarthy. “This is unsafe for any community.”
But Andy Fell, UC Davis’ information rep, says what UC calls the “National Biocontainment Laboratory” will benefit Davis, California, and the nation. “There’s no Biosafety Level 4 lab west of the Mississippi,” says Fell. “If there is a major disease outbreak that overwhelms the capacity of the state health system to diagnose samples, it will provide extra capacity and more expertise in infectious diseases. And it will help to train the new generation of scientists who can work in this area.”
For many public health scientists, the facility is long overdue. “It’s of the utmost importance,” says Nicole Baumgarth, assistant professor at the UC Davis Center for Comparative Medicine. She worries about threats to public health from West Nile virus, SARS, and even influenza in a more pathogenic form. “It’s only in the wake of September 11th that people have realized how bad the public health infrastructure actually is.”
But faculty and residents say that the lab’s 9/11 link makes them especially nervous. “The proponents of the lab believe this will give them new facilities to do useful work in public health,” says John Roth, UC Davis professor of microbiology. “The less optimistic view is that this will be a biodefense lab to do classified research with high security.”
The Request for Proposals issued by NIAID and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that the labs will be built to “conduct research on pathogens that are considered to be of significant research importance for biodefense,” and allows the Department of Homeland Security to take over the lab in “emergency circumstances.” Opponents also contend that it gives NIH, not UC Davis, final authority over the research agenda.
In an April 17 open letter, UC Davis Vice Chancellor of Research Barry Klein wrote that UC Davis would control the facility, and that “there are no plans to perform classified research at the NBL or, for that matter, anywhere on campus.”
Roth and other faculty members linked the lab to the administration’s “war on terrorism,” and concluded, “it is highly unlikely that classified research could be avoided at such a facility. The lab’s explicit mandate and governance structure and the nature of UC and NIH policy all pave the way for classified research.” Says Roth, “Homeland security is bringing this money for, basically, biological warfare. And by putting it on campus they give it respectability.”
Representatives from NIH visited the campus on July 17, indicating continued interest. UC Davis’ existing veterinary, medical, and agricultural research laboratories and West Coast location make it a serious competitor. A final decision to award up to two contracts will be made this fall.
Activists aren’t waiting. On June 5, Stop UCD Biolab Now filed a lawsuit, claiming that the Regents failed to include adequate environmental reviews in the proposal. City Councilmember Mike Harrington has encouraged the City of Davis to consider a similar suit. “I would hope NIH is smart enough not to give something like this to the UC Regents,” says McCarthy. “But until I know that they’re not giving it to them, we’re not slowing down.”

Comments are closed.