Funding shortfall may kill bio-terrorism lab

SPOKANE, Wash. - A bio-terrorism lab that tests for everything from the flu to anthrax and ricin is in danger of closing due to lack of funding.

The lab is one of only two in the state, with the other one located in Shoreline, more than 300 miles away. Local health officials say in a critical situation that's just too far away.

Inside Eastern Washington's bio-terrorism lab Karie Brouillard has been hard at work testing specimens as they come in. She's been working in the lab since it opened 10 years ago.

"It is high stress when you are testing, knowing it is such a critical result that you have and people are waiting," she said.

She's worked on high profile cases in the past, like the suspicious backpack found along the MLK Day Unity Parade route in 2011 and more recently letters laced with ricin sent to the U.S. Post Office and a Spokane judge.

"I really feel we have had enough events in Spokane to really justify the location of a laboratory here and turn-around time, could be the difference between getting people treated as fast as possible," she said.

It's not just the high profile cases we hear about, but the tests that come back negative that justify keeping the lab. If samples aren't tested locally it could take hours, or up to a day, to send it to the state's only other bio-terrorism lab in Western Washington.

"What I worry about is during the winter, when the passes are closed, trying to get the samples to the west side," Brouillard said.

As of now that may be the only option.

"We've seen public health funding do down and down and down," Health Officer Joel McCullough with the Spokane Regional Health District said.

Funding from this lab has dwindled since 2011 and now its gone.

"At this point there is no federal dollars to support testing here in Spokane," McCullough said.

The health district's board recently voted to temporarily fund the lab through 2014 but after that the lab will be unfunded.

The health district needs $150,000 each year to pay for staffing and equipment to keep the lab operational. If long-term funding can't be secured in the coming months the lab will close at the end of the year.