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State budget crisis puts UH lab in limbo


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POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

QUESTION: What ever happened to plans for a Pacific Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at Kakaako?

ANSWER: The $47.5 million University of Hawaii laboratory planned next to the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako is in limbo.

State funds needed to match $32.5 million in federal funding for the laboratory have not been released by the Lingle administration because of the state budget crisis.

The governor released $2.5 million out of a $15 million legislative appropriation to match the federal money, “;but there is a question mark about $12.5 million,”; said James Gaines, UH vice president for research.

He said UH President David McClain “;is very supportive of this project,”; and he believes M.R.C. Greenwood, succeeding McClain as president, “;will be equally supportive, but still there is a $12.5 million hurdle to get over.”;

Hawaii is the last to build a lab out of 13 states selected for a National Institutes of Health network. It would be the only biocontainment level-3 lab west of Fort Collins, Colo.

Level-3 labs are specially designed for safety and security for work on airborne microorganisms that can cause deadly infections.

The NIH awarded $25 million to Hawaii in 2005 to design and build the lab, which the state matched with $12.5 million. Increased costs delayed the project, and UH asked NIH for supplemental funding. The NIH provided another $7.5 million in 2007, which the state matched with $2.5 million last year for a total of $47.5 million.

“;Man-hours put into this development by the university, the medical school and department have been tremendous for four years now,”; said Dr. Vivek Nerurkar, chairman of the UH Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases Department. “;At the end of the day, we see nothing happening. It's total frustration.”;

He said the NIH money is “;an indirect stimulus package”; that would boost the construction industry, and he fears the federal agency will yank it away.

Gaines agreed: “;At some point they're going to say, 'You guys are just wasting our time; send the money back.'”;

He said he hopes Hawaii will not lose the project. “;It's a unique opportunity, and it also would be a drawing card for having the Centers for Disease Control move staff members here.”;

Nerurkar said the medical school has the expertise but needs the resources afforded by a level-3 biocontainment laboratory for diagnosis and research to defend against infections such as H1N1 influenza A (swine flu).