In April 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) wrote to the UW-Madison, saying it was "extremely concerned" that experiments occurring here had "serious potential consequences to public health."
Documents recently released to me in response to an open records request show that a graduate student aided by others genetically modified undisclosed "select agents" to be resistant to antibiotics. They did it without NIH approval, which is required.
"Select agents" are infectious diseases considered by the U.S. government as having the potential to pose substantial harm to human, animal or plant health. The names of the specific "select agents" are redacted from the documents (see here).
When the violations were discovered and reported by the university, more than 3,000 vials of unapproved antibiotic-resistant "select agents" had to be destroyed. The investigation remains open.
In a letter to UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, a campus committee said the university wasn't in compliance with NIH guidelines because of "gross and chronic" understaffing.
Such admissions should raise red flags about the UW's existing Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) labs, and perhaps especially its plans to open a new one at the Primate Research Center, just a block off Regent Street.
University officials say this new lab will study SARS, bird flu and tuberculosis, and will rely on a system called BioBubbles to contain the germs.
BioBubbles are frames with flexible plastic sheeting hung over them, something like portable greenhouses. BioBubbles were designed for quick deployment in temporary emergency situations, like the 2001 anthrax attacks.
BSL-3 labs use biosafety cabinets that are supposed to keep the germs from escaping into the rest of the lab and potentially into the community.
Leaks in biosafety cabinets manufactured by the UW-Madison have led to workers being infected with the germs they were studying, according to an Associated Press article in January. At Texas A&M, lab workers were infected with the bioweapons agent brucella, and in Seattle, workers were infected with tuberculosis. The university stopped manufacturing these cabinets at the end of 2008, citing potential huge liability costs.
Infectious diseases are grouped by the risks they pose. The most dangerous diseases are studied in Biosafety Level-4 labs (BSL-4), like the laboratory that the university wanted to build in the town of Dunn. (The site was passed over by an NIH selection committee.) People working in these labs wear full-body spacesuits connected to air hoses.
There are only four BSL-4 labs operating in the U.S. Just below them, in safety procedures, are the BSL-3 labs.
UW-Madison flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka works out of an underground BSL-3 lab at University Research Park. It has 10-inch-thick crack-resistant walls and, according to a 2006 article in On Wisconsin, resembles "a land-bound submarine crafted of concrete."
This lab was built after the NIH called a halt to Kawaoka's Ebola research in 2007, citing his lack of proper biosafety. A few years earlier, researchers around the world expressed alarm that Kawaoka was studying the 1918 Spanish flu in a BSL-3 lab. The Spanish flu is the most virulent and deadly disease ever encountered.
The primate center lab poses special risks. Isthmus readers know that monkeys sometimes escape from their cages ("My Monkey," 5/16/09). Would an infected berserk monkey be able to push his way through the plastic sheeting?
And no matter how secure a lab is, there is always the human factor. What assurances do we have that a person given access to deadly germs would not, through accident or design, use them to cause infection?
The new BSL-3 infectious disease lab that the university wants to create at the primate center poses needless serious threats to the community. We know from the university's "gross and chronic" biosafety understaffing that it doesn't take biosafety very seriously. Should neighbors bet their family's safety on a promise to change?
We don't need a new BSL-3 lab in a residential neighborhood. The university says forthrightly that the proposed lab will allow it to attract more research dollars. That's not a strong enough reason to put the community at an increased risk of accidental infection with diseases like SARS or the plague.
Rick Bogle is the co-director of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals. He blogs at primateresearch.blogspot.com.