Friday, November 27, 2015         

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UH biosafety lab on Kalaeloa site gets federal OK

Officials still must negotiate with the Army on a lease, and regents must give their OK

By Kristen Consillio


The National Institutes of Health, a federal agency responsible for biomedical research, has given its approval to a biosafety lab planned for Kalaeloa.

The NIH accepted an environmental assessment last week that found no significant impact for the University of Hawaii's proposed $47.5 million Pacific Health Research Laboratory, which would be capable of testing infectious agents such as tuberculosis bacteria and viruses that cause dengue fever and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

"All lights are green now," said UH-Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple. "Many of these infectious disease labs lead to centers that develop new vaccines and treatments. In particular for us, it would be tropical diseases that we're so vulnerable to."

Board of Regents approval is now the only step needed to proceed with the lab. That's contingent upon the university negotiating a lower lease rent with the Army for the 2-acre site in West Oahu, Apple said.

The university had hoped the Army would lease the site at little or no cost, but the Army is now asking for lease rent of $218,850 per year.

"We all got thrown a curveball about a month ago when the folks from D.C. asked for new language," Apple said.

The lease negotiation process should take one to two months, said Vassilis Syrmos, UH-Manoa associate vice chancellor for research.

If approved by the regents, UH officials hope to begin construction of the long-planned project next year and have the facility up and running in 2016.

Construction costs are covered by $32.5 million provided by the National Institutes of Health and $15 million from the state and the university.

But those funds could be in jeopardy if UH and the Army can't come to terms on the lease. The federal funds were contingent upon UH reaching milestones this year, including the environmental assessment and securing a lease for the land.

In addition, the university must decide whether it wants to shoulder an estimated operating deficit of more than $2 million a year.

"There are a lot of benefits but also a lot of high costs for operating this laboratory," Syrmos said. "We're trying to calculate at this point what kind of in-kind contributions we're putting in to the site. It's a balance between the costs and the benefits. This is a question that the regents have to weigh."

UH is looking to attract eight to 10 high-caliber researchers for the facility, which could generate "easily over $10 million a year" in grants, Apple said.

The 31,000-square-foot facility, which could be used for vaccine research and early detection of potentially deadly diseases from the Asia-Pacific region, has riled some West Oahu community members who have cited safety concerns in the case of a natural disaster. There were no public comments in a mandatory one-month public comment period following the environmental assessment.

UH is one of just more than a dozen universities selected to be a part of the National Institutes of Health's network of Biosafety Level 3 laboratories. A smaller Biosafety Level 3 laboratory already exists at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako.

The next Board of Regents meeting in the spring will be the only chance for community members to voice their concerns before final approval of the lab.

"If a decision is made to proceed, then it would make sense to look for some kind of recovery of our operating costs through the federal government," Syrmos said.

Building of the lab was delayed for more than seven years largely because of funding problems.

In recent years it was derailed when the state, during the Lingle administration, failed to release $15 million in matching funds required to obtain the $32.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Lingle released just $2.5 million in 2009 during a budget shortfall. The university has lined up matching funds after floating revenue bonds.

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