San Diego Union-Tribune

November 8, 2001


Disease center in need of infusion


ATLANTA -- Scientists at the nation's top disease-fighting center knew time was of the essence as they analyzed anthrax from the initial bioterror attacks on the East Coast.

But then the power went out. A 40-year-old electrical cable had burned out, plunging their lab into darkness.

Aged wiring is just one of many physical problems bedeviling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at perhaps the most critical time in the institution's 55-year history, as it assumes a front-line role in the war against bioterrorism.

Despite its prestige and renown, the centers' Atlanta facilities have been allowed to deteriorate -- to the point where $500,000 pieces of lab equipment are draped with plastic to shield them from leaky roofs and refrigeration units have crashed through termite-riddled floors.

After a sustained lobbying campaign by Atlanta's business elite, followed by the unprecedented scrutiny of the CDC brought on by the anthrax attacks, Congress is taking notice.

Even before the attacks, the CDC's capital budget had been ramped up to plant the seed money for a 10-year building and renovation project spearheaded by Director Jeffrey Koplan. Now, some lawmakers are advocating an emergency infusion of funds to pick up the pace of construction.

"It was worse than my wildest imaginings," Rep. Jane Harman, D-Redondo Beach, said after visiting the CDC recently with other members of the House subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security. "It needs a massive upgrade."

President Bush will get a first-hand look today when he comes to Atlanta to give a speech on homeland security.

CDC officials refused requests by Copley News Service for a tour of the facilities, citing security measures following the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes. But Harman's observations were backed up by others in Congress, the scientific community and the CDC itself.

"It's a long-standing problem and one that CDC directors for the past decade and a half have been concerned about," said Virginia Bales, the centers' deputy director for program management.
"It's made it harder (to respond to the anthrax incidents); it's put stress on all of the individuals who are working around the clock on this."

The CDC has two major research campuses in Atlanta, plus about 25 smaller leased spaces scattered throughout the metropolitan area.

At the main Roybal campus, 85 percent of the labs were constructed in the 1960s, according to information provided to subcommittee members. One major exception, a state-of-the-art research facility that opened last December, towers over the rest of the campus.

But even that facility was not immune from the power outage that struck last month, as the researchers analyzing the anthrax case found out.

The Chamblee campus is in worse shape. There, many of the facilities date  to the 1940s, including some barracks that were  designed to last only 10 years.

At both campuses, officials say, labs are overcrowded and often double as office space. Mechanical and electrical systems are unreliable. Corridors are jammed with equipment and supplies.

Security also is a concern.

"From the standpoint of access and the potential for an attack, there needs to be work done," Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told reporters after the subcommittee's tour. "We need to make sure
CDC is as safe as our embassies."

Bales said experimental samples of pathogens like smallpox, one of only two known samples of the deadly virus in the world, are well protected.

"We've taken many efforts to make sure that both of these campuses are secure from intruders. Obviously we're hampered by the aging facilities," she said.

Observers cite numerous reasons for the long lag in capital spending that led to the deterioration of the facilities: a congressional and presidential emphasis on direct disease-fighting programs; the lack, until recently, of a comprehensive building plan; and, perhaps most important, Atlanta's distance from Washington.

"We were kind of in a situation of being out of sight, out of mind," said Phil Jacobs, president of Georgia operations for BellSouth.

Jacobs was one of several local business executives who, in his words, were "shocked and dismayed" when the dire state of the facilities was brought to their attention during a CDC board meeting two years ago.

In response, BellSouth and Atlanta's other corporate titans -- including Delta Air Lines, United Parcel Service and Home Depot -- formed a group called Friends of CDC and hired a Washington lobbyist to get Congress and the White House to back Director Koplan's $1 billion building plan.

The plan calls for the construction of four labs and six support facilities, the renovation of some buildings and the consolidation of the CDC's Atlanta operations at the two campuses.

The corporate lobbying effort has paid off. The CDC's buildings and facilities budget jumped from $57 million in fiscal year 2000 to $175 million in fiscal 2001.

President Bush had proposed scaling back the spending to $150 million for fiscal 2002. But that was well before Sept. 11 changed the political dynamics in Washington. Spending legislation passed by the Senate this week would raise the figure to $250 million, while the House proposed keeping it at $175 million.

Reps. Chambliss and Harman, the respective chairman and ranking Democrat of the terrorism subcommittee, recently upped the bidding. They proposed a $1.5 billion package -- $300 million in each of the next five years -- that would allow the CDC to complete the building project in half the amount of time Koplan envisioned.

"I think one of the lessons September 11 and anthrax have taught us is this is not just one more bureaucrat trying to get their program funded more," said Bill Roper, a former CDC director who now heads the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina. "It's a homeland security issue for the nation and
we just have to do it."