In the past century, medical research has led to improved health and increased life expectancy largely because of success in preventing and treating infectious diseases. This success has come about through the use of antibiotics and vaccines, improved hygiene, and increased public awareness. New threats to health continually emerge naturally, however, as bacteria and viruses evolve, are transported to new environments, or develop resistance to drugs and vaccines. Some familiar examples of these so-called emerging or re-emerging infections include HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and annual outbreaks of influenza.
To control epidemics and protect the public health, medical researchers must quickly identify naturally occurring microbes and then develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines for them. Preparing for bioterrorism—the deliberate release of a microbe into a community in which it is not a current health concern—calls for the identical scientific skills and strategies.
For more than 50 years, NIAID has led the nation's medical research effort to understand, treat, and prevent the myriad infectious diseases that threaten hundreds of millions of people worldwide. NIAID's portion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget—received each year from Congress—supports medical research conducted on the NIH campus in Maryland, at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, and at universities and research centers, primarily nationwide but also overseas. The benefits of this research reach people of all ages worldwide.
Because NIAID has broad experience, expertise, and success in developing medical tools to fight infectious diseases, it now also plays a leading role in the nation's fight against bioterrorism. The Institute has greatly expanded its research programs to accelerate the development of new and improved diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines to protect civilians from deadly infectious diseases, whether they emerge naturally or are deliberately released.
Through a process of extensive expert consultation, NIAID has developed a strategic plan for biodefense and emerging infectious diseases research. Key elements of the plan include the following:
NIAID's ultimate goal is to develop new and improved diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments for diseases caused by infectious agents. Medical tools such as these can only be developed, however, with a solid understanding of the biology of the disease-causing agents, whether they occur naturally or are deliberately released. Such research sometimes requires working with the actual microbes or their toxins. This research must be conducted in special biosafety laboratories and in accord with the many laws, regulations, policies, and well-established guidelines that govern research on these microbes and the design, management, and operation of these laboratories. All these provisions aim to protect not only the lab workers but also the surrounding community from accidental exposure to infectious agents.
The Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories guidelines specify four levels of safety and security required for laboratory facilities in which such research will take place. The general characteristics of the biosafety levels (often referred to as BSL-2 to BSL-4) are summarized in Table 1.
Many U.S. institutions and companies with infectious disease research programs have BSL-3 laboratory suites required to perform their research. Most such laboratories, however, are small, dedicated to particular uses, or in need of modernization. In addition, some hospitals have small laboratory or clinical areas that can operate at this level, including space for isolating patients suspected or known to have certain highly contagious diseases.
BSL-4 labs have the most stringent safety and security requirements. There are currently only four operational BSL-4 laboratory suites in the United States: at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland; at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas; and at the University of Texas at Galveston. Georgia State University in Atlanta has a small BSL-3/BSL-4 glove box facility. In addition, a small BSL-4 facility exists on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, but it is currently being operated only at a BSL-3 level for research on important emerging infectious diseases.
Recent natural and bioterrorist events involving infectious agents have made it very clear that from a strategic national perspective, a serious shortage of BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory space exists. This problem has been well documented by the Institute of Medicine, and it has repeatedly been identified in NIAID's strategic planning process. Thus, NIAID's research agenda for biodefense and emerging infectious diseases includes plans to construct and renovate BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories around the country. To be most effective, these laboratories must be located where established teams of researchers already work side-by-side on related scientific problems.
NIAID-Funded Research Will Include
NIAID-Funded Research Will NOT Include
NIAID Policies Regarding Security, Publication, and Secrecy
BSL-2 practice plus
BSL-3 practices plus
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Last Updated July 23, 2010