AIDS Testing Is State-of-Art; Lab Facility Is of Another Age

Associated Press

Scientists at the world’s busiest AIDS testing laboratory face not only blood samples contaminated with a deadly disease, but peeling paint, exploding light bulbs and a sink with no drain.

There’s even a sign on the elevator warning not to use it; it gets stuck.

New York, a leader in AIDS testing and research in this country largely because it has more AIDS patients than any other state, does most of this key scientific work in a laboratory built in 1917.

Potholes line the driveway leading to the three-story brick building, where gleaming computers sit alongside equipment rusted with age. Exposed wires run along walls and paint peels from the ceiling.


“It’s kind of ironic,” said Colleen Flood, a bacteriologist who runs the program that tests newborns for the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus. “We’re down here doing work that’s at the forefront. When people come in here . . . they say, ‘How can you work in such a dilapidated lab?’ ”

Measures of Pride, Indignity

Flood and her colleagues have learned to adjust to a job that brings with it certain measures of pride and indignity. They took the job partly because it is more exciting than routine lab work, but they deal with a disease that still comes with a taint and work in conditions that cannot match private labs.

Virtually any testing needed to combat a public health emergency in New York eventually finds its way to the New Scotland Avenue Laboratory here, said Donald Berns, director of the Health Department division of clinical sciences.

When medical waste began washing up on beaches last summer, it was bagged and sent to Berns for examination. When there was an outbreak of salmonella in eggs, they were brought to New Scotland Avenue.

AIDS is overwhelmingly the state’s most pressing health epidemic. It had 20,476 confirmed cases by the end of 1988, one-fourth the national total, and about 300,000 New Yorkers are thought to be HIV infected, a possible precursor of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The state conducts nearly 750,000 tests related to AIDS a year here, including half a million HIV tests. That is more than any other laboratory anywhere, Berns said. The military conducts more than 600,000 HIV tests a year at a Miami lab.


20 Assigned to AIDS Testing

Hundreds of blood vials a day are delivered by mail to the laboratory where they are placed in a black bin for sorting. Each vial is assigned a number and information about the test subject is typed into a computer. Of the 138 laboratory employees, 20 deal exclusively with AIDS testing.

Five white freezers hum in one of many small rooms. Each contains 20,000 blood serum samples, part of the state’s research stockpile. Each sample taken since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is kept here as a ready resource for tests done on the disease.

The freezers stand next to a rusted sink covered with a cardboard sign: “Do not use sink. No drain.”

It is one of dozens of little reminders of the building’s limitations. The elevators were installed before the Roaring ‘20s. The ovens where glass was made for test tubes and beakers have been dormant for years, so outdated the equipment is not safe, said Russ Toombs, the lab’s operations director.

Mold sometimes grows on the ceilings, said researcher Diana Schoonmaker. Lights occasionally flicker, and bulbs have exploded during power surges.

Schoonmaker was one of 15 workers who tested positive in 1983 for exposure to tuberculosis, one of many viruses tested there. Each worker was treated with antibiotics for a year, and none developed the disease. But it scared them.


“It’s frustrating to me,” Berns said of the building. “It’s a real problem to have to deal with this. But the quality of the people make up for a lot of the problems you have.”

Flood, 28, said her fiance, a high school teacher, did not want her to take the lab job because of fears about the AIDS virus. Neither did her parents.

“After a while they figured that I was intelligent enough to know that if there was any risk involved then I wouldn’t take it,” she said.

Keeps Work From Friends

Rosalyn Moore, who also tests blood samples for AIDS, said she thinks twice about telling acquaintances what she does. Usually she just tells them she works in a laboratory, without going into specifics.

The employees are strict about wearing rubber gloves and white coats and say they do not worry too much about the danger. But like their superiors, they would like a better place to work.

“With New York state and all its wealth, it seems they could provide a little better working atmosphere,” said Mike Neal, a bacteriologist.


There has never been an accident involving the AIDS virus, Berns said. The virus is not “a hardy virus” and quickly dies when exposed to air.

He would not characterize the building as dangerous, “but I also would be dishonest if I didn’t say the potential for accidents is far higher here.”

Modern laboratories are sealed so germs cannot escape from floor to floor. New Scotland’s ventilation system is less modern--windows are opened, often in the winter because of inconsistent heating--and it is believed that this contributed to the TB virus exposure six years ago, Berns said.

‘Obsolete, Deteriorating’

Gov. Mario Cuomo has called the lab “obsolete, deteriorating and incapable of meeting modern federal standards for biosafety” and asked the Legislature for $75 million to rebuild it and six other buildings, all built before 1949.

Few people dispute that the building needs to be replaced. “It’s just a question of staying with it,” said state Sen. Joseph Bruno, who sponsored legislation to appropriate the money. The bill is pending.

Designs have already been drawn up for the new lab. They are outside Berns’ office, awaiting the governmental go-ahead. But money is tight in New York this year, with Cuomo saying he had to deal with a potential $2.6-billion deficit as he prepared a budget proposal for the fiscal year that began April 1.


“You stretch a rubber band as far as you can,” Berns said. “This rubber band has been stretched to the point of breaking.”