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Upgrading urged for Ames labs Anthrax scare creates urgency for repairing facilities, experts say. By JENNIFER DUKES LEE Register Staff Writer 10/19/2001
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Ames, Ia. - A piece of the nation's defense against bioterrorism sits in a strip mall in Ames.
In a building better suited for accountants, scientists here are part of a network of Ames experts considered to be America's front line against the kind of terrorism that threatens the U.S. food supply.
It's the kind of terrorism that could harm animal herds and devastate the nation's agricultural economy.
It's the kind of terrorism that seemed unthinkable to Americans outside of these laboratories before Sept. 11.
However, the laboratories where these scientists work are deteriorating and badly in need of repair, experts say.
The federal labs, spread throughout buildings in Ames, are crowded. Pipes are corroded. Ventilation systems are antiquated. In recent years, extremely dangerous substances - including anthrax - were being handled in the strip mall, where real-estate agents also have offices.
Federal officials have questioned the safety of the labs, saying upgrades are needed soon.
For years, authorities have pressed for a multimillion-dollar upgrade to fix the centers, all operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Congress has approved $40 million in improvements. Iowa's federal lawmakers say $390 million is still needed.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, along with anthrax scares this month, have created a new sense of urgency to make those repairs. Officials say the scientists at the USDA centers need world-class laboratories to tackle animal disease, especially at a time when the threat presented by terrorists seems much more plausible.
"Our recognition of how critical that line of defense is has come to the fore," said Dr. Harley Moon, a veterinary medicine professor at Iowa State University and former director of the National Animal Disease Center.
The center is one of three pieces that make up the USDA operations in Ames. Scientists at the Animal Disease Center conduct some of the most important research into animal diseases in the country. Scientists at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories are national leaders in the diagnosis of those diseases, and the Center for Veterinary Biologics ensures that animal vaccines are safe and effective.
Perhaps the most visible part of the USDA's operations is on federally owned land in east Ames near Interstate Highway 35.
Under federal law, research and testing involving foreign animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease can be conducted only at a facility surrounded by water, with no bridge or tunnel connections to the mainland. The USDA maintains its foreign animal-disease center on Plum Island, N.Y.
If terrorists tainted domestic herds with such a disease, the responsibility for stopping its spread would fall to the scientists in Ames, said Moon, also a former director of the Plum Island station.
Moon and other experts say the threat of such an outbreak can no longer be ignored.
Dr. Norman Cheville, dean of ISU's veterinary medicine college, said terrorist groups" apparent interest in crop-dusting equipment indicates that they have considered what's known as "agroterrorism."
"They certainly have the means to bring that about, so we need to do everything we can to prevent that," said Cheville, who worked at the National Animal Disease Center for 32 years.
The USDA labs are not affiliated with similar labs at Iowa State, although they maintain a close relationship. ISU scientists share information with peers at the federal labs. In some cases, the scientists work at both places.
The USDA picked Ames as the site of the lab complex, in part, because the veterinary medicine college already was located there, Moon said.
The scientists in Ames are considered to be among the best in the world at protecting livestock from frightening diseases, he said.
Their ability to safeguard the nation's livestock industry, however, is hampered by the federal labs where they work, said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.
Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he was dismayed by the conditions when he toured the complex this spring.
In March, about 350 sheep exposed to a form of mad-cow disease were slaughtered at the centers. Harkin said he was appalled that the scientists could not dispose of the dead sheep efficiently.
"They were putting these sheep in big plastic bags, waiting for disposal," Harkin said.
The carcasses were bagged until they could be dissolved in a "biodigester," a pressurized vat of boiling lye.
The USDA has said that without new facilities, the labs would lose their ability to respond effectively to animal-disease emergencies.
Harkin and other members of Iowa's delegation say they are pushing even harder to speed up construction for the new centers. He said he hopes they can be gutted and rebuilt within five years, rather than 10.
Although officials are raising concerns about safety at the facilities, they insist that the public is protected from the dangerous agents kept inside the centers.
"We absolutely take all efforts to make sure we have a safe operation," said Scott Rusk, assistant director at the National Animal Disease Center.
Federal authorities are taking more safety precautions than they were before Sept. 11. Rusk said security at the animal-disease center has been tightened, though he declined to offer specifics.
Next door, at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories, security is unusually tight. Local officials at the lab declined interview requests and would not allow a photographer inside. A state trooper has been stationed near the entrance. USDA officials confirmed that the lab has small samples of anthrax.
The USDA complex WHAT: The complex comprises three centers - the National Animal Disease Center, National Veterinary Services Laboratories and the Center for Veterinary Biologics. Construction began in the early 1960s.
WHERE: The labs are spread throughout Ames, but the main centers are located in east Ames, near Interstate Highway 35.
WHO: About 600 people work at the three centers. Many of the scientists also have appointments at Iowa State University.
THEIR WORK: The scientists have protected the nation's food supply by developing vaccines and eradicating animal diseases, including hog cholera. The scientists were the first to isolate the West Nile virus when it caused a scare in the United States in 1999. The Ames complex is the animal equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
ON THE WEB: Find out more about the National Animal Disease Center at: www.nadc.ars.usda.gov
Web sites for the other two centers are being updated.
-- Anonymous, October 19, 2001