I drive past an imposing, razor-wire fence that encloses Ft. Detrick, and as I pull up to the main gates at the military base for our special Undercover Hour, I wonder if this might be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done for the show … or one of the craziest. I’m about to visit our nation’s main bio-defense laboratory – a place so highly classified and secure that no media cameras have ever been allowed in. Until now.
I’d been invited by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Science and Technology to bring our crew for an exclusive up close and personal look at its brand new state-of-the-art facility called the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, known as NBACC. The NBACC will soon be home to some of the planet’s deadliest germs and viruses that can be used in bioterror attacks. I’m not sure what I’ll encounter once I make it past all the gates, guns and guards to gain entrance to the labs.
My guide through NBACC is almost as impressive as the bio-lab fortress he oversees. J. Patrick Fitch, Ph.D, or Pat as he prefers to be called, is the director of the laboratory and the ultimate scientist’s scientist. Dr. Pat Fitch’s expertise ranges from engineering to biotechnology to bio-defense: he’s chaired prestigious blue-ribbon health and science advisory panels; he’s a medical device inventor; an award-winning academic author and journal editor; and he has 20 years of experience as a CEO-level lab administrator. Dr. Fitch was a major force behind the development of BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security’s system of automated sensors installed in cities throughout the country to detect unwelcome pathogens in the air. At 6’7”, the former college hoops star is used to taking on tough opponents. He describes for me – plain and simple – who our new enemy is.
The first stop: BioSafety Level 3 lab. When the FBI or police suspect that a crime might be a “bio-crime” or the work of a bioterrorist, the weapon will be sent here for analysis. The need for a national hi-tech lab like this became evident 10 years ago, when the country was hit with a series of deadly anthrax attacks, and even scarier, the government had no real plan to deal with it. The Department of Homeland Security was created and one of its first responses was to create NBACC, the world’s most sophisticated research lab for science critical to defend us from bioterrorism. In 2001, before the lab was constructed, it took dozens of individual labs across the country working together for more than a year to complete the bio-forensics on the anthrax sent through the US Post Office. Today, in BioSafety Level 3, Dr. Fitch tells me they’d get the answer within days, perhaps hours.
Here’s something else I learned about this cutting-edge lab. You know what they include in their arsenal of powerful germ fighters? Chlorine bleach and household disinfectants. Yes – the same stuff you might be using at home to keep kitchen cutting boards and bathroom toilets safe. After all, as Dr. Fitch says, a germ is a germ is a germ.
Dr. Fitch sets me up to work at the lab bench. I’m not handling lethal bugs, but I get a real chance to see what it’s like to handle those samples. The safety precautions leave nothing to chance, but they make the actual work even more challenging. I have huge professional respect for the lab technicians who work here.
When a biological agent is classified as deadly, it goes to BioSafety Level 4. A mistake in this lab could kill you. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Hot Zone, BioSafety Level 4 is that kind of place. The walls in this special wing of the building are solid concrete and about a foot thick. Double sets of enormous steel doors guard each individual lab. Dr. Fitch has two of his best scientists help me suit up to go inside. I’m outfitted in an airtight biohazard suit that gets its air supply from hoses that drop from the ceiling. There aren’t too many people around who can say they’ve had the chance to see what I’m about to see.
The NBACC facility is not without its controversies. The lab technicians might be well protected from deadly germs, and I can certainly see that germs aren’t going to escape through steel doors and concrete walls, but what’s going up the vents or down the drain? Fortunately, I learn that fail-safe measures have been designed into the building as well – and while our cameras can’t shoot them for security reasons, we’ve been able to create an animation to show you how the bio-agents are discarded.
I’ve personally never been in a place with such tight security. It can take years for NBACC to screen scientists and award them the proper government security clearance they need to work here. Dr. Fitch is determined to avoid a nightmare scenario like the one that occurred on this military base – where anthrax used in the attacks a decade ago was traced back to a research lab at Ft. Detrick. Another fear: the alarming possibility that this lab might do more than identify bio-weapons – it might actually develop them. Dr. Fitch is adamant that he and his bosses at the Department of Homeland Security are ushering in a new era of transparency. You can hear his answer for yourself.
The Department of Homeland Security has spent about $150 million dollars on NBACC. If NBACC was a new house being built (instead of a world class bio-lab), I’d say they’re almost done and working on their punch list: fine-tuning equipment, and testing procedures and protocol before they get ready to move in the deadliest bacteria and viruses. Once that happens, Dr. Fitch and his team will close the doors to the public for good. Only about 120 scientists, administrative staff and special advisors for oversight will ever see the inside again. Thanks to Dr. Fitch and DHS Office of Science and Technology for unprecedented access.