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Pitt gets $6 million for bioterror alerts

Thursday, June 06, 2002

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The University of Pittsburgh is receiving a three-year grant of more than $6 million to develop a statewide system that could provide an early warning of bioterrorism events.

The money will allow for the expansion to Harrisburg and Philadelphia of a computerized system that currently monitors the symptoms of patients who are being treated at 25 hospitals in southwestern Pennsylvania. The idea is that finding spikes in patient symptoms in a particular area could point to an incident of bioterrorism.

Gov. Mark Schweiker announced the grant today during a news conference in Lawrenceville.

Officials also described a new Allegheny County laboratory that will be equipped to test suspicious substances for evidence of bioterrorism. With more than $900,000 in federal money passed through the state, the county lab will be built on the grounds of the county Health Department's Clack Health Center in Lawrenceville, Schweiker said.

Money for Pitt's computer system, which is called the Real-time Outbreak Disease Surveillance system, comes from the portion of Pennsylvania's share of the national tobacco settlement that was set aside for biomedical research. The RODS system analyzed patient data from Salt Lake City during the Olympics earlier this year and was lauded by President Bush during a visit to Pittsburgh in February.

Run in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University and Siemens Medical Solutions Health Services, the statewide surveillance system will allow the state Department of Health to analyze data from hospitals, poison centers, pharmacies and other industries to look for patterns that indicate an infectious-disease outbreak.

In accepting the grant money, Dr. Arthur Levine, Pitt's senior vice chancellor for health sciences, said RODS researchers are in the process of creating a link with hospitals in the state of Indiana, as well. With more data running through the system, researchers will be better able to study and improve RODS, Levine said.

The Health Department's new two-story laboratory in Lawrenceville will cover more than 8,000 square feet, with one-eighth of the space being certified as a "Bio-Safety Level 3" lab, said Dr. Bruce Dixon, county health director. The lab will provide backup to the State Health Laboratory in Lionville, Chester County, a Level 3 lab that was overwhelmed during last fall's anthrax scare. Lab staff worked around the clock to test more than 1,500 samples for anthrax.

The lab director in Chester County, Dr. Bruce Kieger, said Level 3 labs have special ventilation systems and safety features that allow them to safely test for potential bioterror agents such as anthrax, plague and botulism. The bulk of the lab will conduct routine testing for infectious disease. Currently, the county's lab in Oakland routinely tests for sexually transmitted diseases, food-borne illnesses, meningitis, rabies and other public-health conditions, but facilities in the new lab will be updated, Dixon said.

The new lab will cost $905,900. That money is the biggest single piece of the of more than $2 million slated for Allegheny County as part of Pennsylvania's proposal for spending more than $37 million in bioterrorism funding being made available by the federal government.

The bulk of the $37 million will be delivered to the state once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accepts the state's anti-bioterrorism plan, which was submitted earlier this year. A federal response to the state plan, which had been expected last month, could come in the next few days, said Richard McGarvey, state Health Department spokesman.

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