DHS taps Battelle for $500M biodefense job

The Homeland Security Department this afternoon announced that it has awarded a $500 million contract to Battelle National Biodefense Institute to manage and operate a new biodefense analysis center, currently under construction at Fort Detrick, Md.

The Battelle organization, a unit of Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, received a base contract award of $250 million over five years, with five option years that could bring the projected award cost to $500 million, DHS said in a press statement.

The department's Science and Technology Directorate hired Battelle to conduct scientific programs and operate the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center as a federally funded R&D center.

DHS said that the new lab and science center would comprise about 160,000 gross square feet of working area and accommodate a staff of about 120. That floor area is equivalent to about 32 large houses.

'Upon completion in 2008, the NBACC will offer a safe and secure bio-containment laboratory space for biological threat characterizations and bio-forensics analyses,' DHS said.

Fort Detrick has been the home of the Pentagon's biological warfare operations since 1943, when it was called Camp Detrick. The Army Chemical Warfare Service conducted the research under the utmost secrecy with the oversight of pharmaceutical company owner George W. Merck and an interagency scientific group called War Bureau of Consultants, according to government historical records. The Army originally estimated the facility's construction cost at $1.25 million, but that quickly increased to $4.3 million, or about $50.2 million in today's dollars.

President Gerald Ford signed the Biological Weapons Convention on the prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons on Jan. 22, 1975.

After that date, the Pentagon dismantled the high-level biological containment facilities that it had used for the research at Fort Detrick, to the reported dismay of scientists who said that the research facilities would have been very useful for civilian health investigative work.

Nowadays, the Health and Human Services Department uses comparable facilities, which are technologically far advanced versions of the containment gear invented by the Army researchers in the 1940s and '50s.

The research center will include biosafety level 2, 3 and 4 laboratory space, air-handling equipment, security controls and other supporting facilities, a department spokesman said. The higher levels of biosafety correlate to the virulence of the biological agents inside. The DHS spokesman declined to elaborate on the IT operations planned for the new lab.

DHS already has issued contracts, valued in the low millions of dollars, for improved computer models of the likely impact of a major disease outbreak.

The Soviet Union signed the Biological Weapons Convention as well, but it continued its biological warfare research program, according to reports by scientists with first hand knowledge of the program.

The Soviet scientists were particularly successful in combining extremely deadly microbes with genetic materials from other organisms that improved their ability to function as weapons.

Such features include the ability to spread quickly through human populations and to withstand environmental conditions outside the bodies of host organisms. 'Weaponization' research involves intensive use of computers, partly for conducting gene-splicing and similar research.

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