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Federal scientists battle to unlock pathogen secrets

Sunday, December 29, 2002

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Giant beakers filled with blood clutter countertops and extra refrigerators cramp the hallways at the federal government's main research center for West Nile virus.

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have had to sharply shift the focus of their work toward the sometimes fatal disease that is spreading across most of the country.

The individual labs within the white building are packed with beakers of blood and other animal specimens that may carry the virus. Former offices have been relocated to temporary structures outside to make room for extra lab space.

Lab officials say their workload increased dramatically since West Nile virus first appeared in a few dozen U.S. cases in 1999. Already this year, more than 3,500 human cases of the mosquito-borne illness have been confirmed. And recently CDC noted that the United States had suffered this year the biggest reported outbreak of West Nile encephalitis in the world.

"Our workload has been a lot, and there is no sign that it is going to let up," said John T. Roehrig, chief of the arbovirus diseases branch of the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases.

More time devoted

West Nile previously received the same attention as countless diseases affecting the global community. Now, as the CDC's primary West Nile virus research facility, up to 90 percent of the lab's time and resources are devoted to this disease.

About 150 people work at the lab.

The emphasis on West Nile comes while the lab also tries to address its responsibility for research on plague and tularemia, both highly infectious agents with potential for use in bioterrorism.

And with an increased concern about bioterrorism since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the lab has made a series of security changes including the installation of a giant barbed-wire fence around its perimeter.

Roehrig acknowledged that other research projects have been put on the back burner to make room for West Nile studies.

"We try to maintain expertise and credibility for all the diseases we're responsible for. But where we've had the biggest effect is in our field teams, who are now responding to West Nile," Roehrig said.

He said lab scientists are trying to develop better diagnostic testing for West Nile virus. One model, which detects genetic material from the virus, is being used in scientific investigations and may one day be used to screen donated blood for West Nile virus.

Other research projects include new vaccines for horses and possibly birds, and studies of how the virus may be transmitted between humans through breast milk, blood transfusions and organ donations.

Roehrig said drug companies are investigating a possible human West Nile vaccine, which he expects to see within a couple of years.

In the beginning, the Fort Collins lab was responsible for confirming all human cases of West Nile virus. Since then, lab workers have trained state and local agencies to do their own testing when possible.

One of the main lessons learned from the arrival of West Nile was that state and local health agencies were far less prepared for an infectious disease outbreak than they should have been, said Duane J. Gubler, director of the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases.

Wake-up call

He said West Nile is a wake-up call to a public health system that has grown complacent about vector-borne infectious diseases since the advent of powerful new drugs and antibiotics over the last few decades.

"Along with that complacency, we allowed the public health infrastructure to deteriorate," Gubler said.

Case in point: the aging, cramped lab in Fort Collins.

Built in 1967 to help the CDC deal with arboviral encephalitis in the western United States, the lab soon took over research duties for plague, Dengue fever, Lyme disease and other zoonotic bacterial infections.

As duties grew, the lab became more crowded. By about 1998, some offices were moved to temporary structures outside of the main building to make room for more lab space.

But West Nile virus has the lab busier and more crowded than ever. The electrical wiring, heating and cooling systems are antiquated and desperately need to be replaced.

"We're crowded. We need a new lab. And right now the plan is to build it," Gubler said.

In the meantime, scientists will learn from changes the lab has undergone in the last few years.

"One of the main lessons we've taken home from this experience is that we need to keep an open mind and expect the unexpected," Gubler said.


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