A Fort Detrick laboratory slated for closure has processed about 14,000 pieces of evidence in criminal investigations involving biological threats such as ricin and anthrax, the FBI confirmed this week.
And it’s the only laboratory in the country that can do this special brand of investigation and analysis.
“The capabilities offered at the NBFAC [National Bioforensic Analysis Center] are unique and unparalleled,” FBI spokesman Matthew Bertron said in a written response to questions from The Frederick News-Post. “No alternative facility is available to support the FBI with this mission.”
Bertron said the FBI relies exclusively on the NBFAC to provide 24-hour forensic analysis on biological threat investigations.
The NBFAC is one of two parts of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, a Department of Homeland Security laboratory at Fort Detrick. The other component is the National Biological Threat Characterization Center (NBTCC), which aims to understand the science of biological threats.
Last week, NBACC was notified that the Department of Homeland Security intends to shutter the facility by September 2018; all scientific research should end by March 2018, NBACC communications director Brian Gaudet confirmed.
Bertron did not address whether the FBI was consulted about the lab’s pending closure.
The 14,000 items of evidence have been processed at NBFAC since 2004, Bertron said. (For the first few years of its existence, the NBACC program conducted research without a dedicated Department of Homeland Security-owned facility through partnerships with other federal and private institutions.)
Bertron said the FBI has established a team of examiners at NBFAC, which is uniquely suited to do forensic analysis — including of fingerprints and DNA — on potentially contaminated evidence.
The laboratory generally doesn’t confirm investigations, but their analyses become clear in federal court filings from time to time. At a time when the television show “Breaking Bad” inspired homemade ricin recipes, NBFAC was involved in testing suspected ricin in cases from Texas, Wisconsin and, closer to home, D.C., where a Georgetown University student prepared the biological toxin in his dorm room, according to court filings.
The laboratory does not have a separate line item in the federal budget. It is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, and a portion of its funding comes from the FBI.
The Battelle National Biodefense Institute, or BNBI, manages NBACC for the Department of Homeland Security.
The 160,000-square-foot facility holds a BSL-4 high-security research laboratory, where scientists handle some of the world’s most dangerous agents, including Ebola and anthrax, and conduct research on pathogens for which no vaccine or treatment exists, according to its website.
NBACC has about 51,927 square feet of total lab space, including BSL-2, BSL-3 and BSL-4 work areas.
About 180 people work there.
BNBI will reverse-engineer a shutdown timeline based on the projected closing date, if the cuts remain in the federal budget, Gaudet said previously.
Maryland’s senators and Congressman John Delaney, D-6th, have said they will push back against the proposed closure during the federal budget process.
The cut to NBACC could reflect shifting homeland security priorities under the Trump administration — in particular, the president’s call for a barrier along the border with Mexico increased border security. Overall, the Homeland Security budget increased 6.8 percent in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget request.
John S. Verrico, the chief of media relations at the Science and Technology Directorate within the Department of Homeland Security, said the president’s proposed 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.”
To maximize limited research and development funding, he said, the department has prioritized its work to focus on the department’s “highest priority needs.”
“Instead of taking reductions across S&T, we have proposed cutting certain S&T programs, projects and activities in their entirety to better support the Department’s and Administration’s priorities,” Verrico said.