Funding shortfall could shut down bioterrorism lab

SPOKANE, Wash. - When letters were found at the Spokane Post Office containing Ricin, that identification was made thanks to the local bioterrorism lab at the Spokane Regional Health District building downtown. Now, unfortunately, its at risk of closing due to budget cuts.

That case is just one example our local elected officials are pointing to as proof the lab is something our region can't afford to lose. Why? Health officials say had the bioterrorism laboratory not been here during this month's Ricin threat that substance would have had to have been shipped eight to ten hours away. That's time they said could have cost lives.

"If you have an instance where you have possible exposure minutes and hours count," Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Tuesday as he stood with city council members, state lawmakers and health officials as they made their case.

Bioterror lab

Less money locally, and from the Centers for Disease Control, will almost certainly result in this facility's closure, possibly this year.

With just one full time employee the lab costs $170,000 to operate each year. It serves not only Spokane but bioterrorism services for all of Eastern Washington and North Idaho. In the last seven years its tested more than 70 samples including the suspicious backpack found at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March in 2011.

State Representative Marcus Riccelli from Spokane said its not just the high profile cases we hear about, but the tests that come back negative that justify keeping the lab. However the most recent work done at the lab in the Ricin investigation is the perfect example of why these local officials keeping the lab open is worth fighting for.

"This incident highlights how critical it is that we retain this capacity in Eastern Washington and is an excellent case study for why this lab exists," Riccelli said.

"This is going to be an extreme cost to the community if we are not able to keep the funding here," Knezovich added.

Lawmakers and health officials are hoping for leftover CDC dollars and they'll find out about whether they get that funding at the end of the fiscal year. They said that would only act as a band-aid for the funding problem; a more permanent funding solution needs to be found, and they will continue to work at the local and federal level to make that happen.