The FBI has confirmed that a Fort Detrick lab responsible for handling evidence involving biological threats like anthrax and ricin has been targeted for closure.
The lab in question has processed about 14,0000 pieces of evidence in criminal investigations since 2004 and is the only laboratory in the nation equipped to perform this unique type of investigation and analysis.
In a response to questions from The Frederick News Post, a local paper in Frederick, Maryland where Fort Detrick is located, FBI spokesman Matthew Bertron provided this written response: “The capabilities offered at the NBFAC (National Bioforensic Analysis Center) are unique and unparalleled. No alternative facility is available to support the FBI with this mission.”
Bertron went on to say that the FBI relies exclusively on the facility to provide round-the-clock analysis on evidence involved in biological threats to the nation. Since the lab is uniquely suited to perform forensic analysis, including fingerprints and DNA, as well as on potentially contaminated evidence, the FBI established a team of examiners at the facility.
The NBFAC is one of two parts of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), a Department of Homeland Security laboratory located at Fort Detrick. The other part is the National Biological Threat Characterization Center (NBTCC), and its purpose is to understand the underlying science of biological threats.
The DHS recently notified NBACC that the closure is set to take effect by September 2018 and that all scientific research should conclude by March 2018.
Some of the most dangerous toxins in the world are handled there, including anthrax, ricin and Ebola. According to the NBACC website, the facility conducts research on pathogens for which there is no vaccine or treatment.
The closure is the result of Trump’s proposed cuts to the budget. Maryland Senators Ben Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D), as well as Maryland 6th District Rep. John Delaney (D) have vowed to push back at the closure during the federal budget process.
The NBFAC funding cut may be reflective of the Trump administration’s priorities. The 2018 budget request for Homeland Security has increased by 6.8 percent, and includes one of Donald Trump’s pet projects, the border wall with Mexico. However, investigating biological threats doesn’t seem to be on Trump’s radar.
John S. Verrico, the chief of media relations at DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, said the president’s budget “provides funding to sustain and strengthen the most critical programs and capabilities in each of DHS’s mission areas — securing and managing our borders, enforcing and administering our immigration laws, preventing terrorism and enhancing security, safeguarding and securing cyberspace, and strengthening national preparedness and resilience.”
He said DHS has prioritized its work in order to maximize limited research and development funding so as to focus on DHS’s “highest priority needs.”
Verrico continued, “Instead of taking reductions across S&T, we have proposed cutting certain S&T programs, projects and activities in their entirely to better support the Department’s and Administration’s policies.”