Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Dangerous Proposition

(This is an article I just submitted to the current edition of "Eat the State". - MM)

Ever since the anthrax letters shortly after 911 bioterrorism has been a big cash cow in the U.S. This year alone $7.6 billion is budgeted for biodefense programs. When money like that is offered everyone wants a piece--the problem is that this particular funding isn't aimed at things that are significant health threats, and the funds always come with plenty of strings attached.

Take the University of Washington, for example. In December of last year the UW put in for a grant from the NIH for $25 million for a new "Regional Biocontainment Lab." UW reps say that they haven't had funds to build new labs since the '70s and therefore see this as an opportunity to get a brand spanking new, state-of-the-art facility. Ignoring the financial hurdles of where the rest of the $63 million will come from, let alone the operating costs (see: "The Bio-Offense Lab, ETS 01/19/05), this proposal has numerous serious problems that citizens should be very concerned about.

First off, the lab isn't really a "lab" in the sense of a single laboratory, it's a complex of 11 BSL-3 suites/labs with additional supporting labs and aerosolizing facilities (read dual-use). It's kind of like calling a mini-mall a store.

What's a BSL-3 (interchangeable with BL-3)? It's short for Bio Safety Level 3. Labs are rated on a scale of one to four, four being the highest level of containment where the nastiest, most virulent pathogens are handled. BSL-4 labs are where researchers experiment on diseases that have no cure.. BSL-3s are for nasties that have cures or treatments but could be devastating if they escaped from the lab.

So the UW is proposing to put a mini-mall housing a devastating array of death and disease on campus next to several major roadways and waterways in a densely populated neighborhood in the largest city in the state. With me so far? It gets worse.

The lab won't be controlled at the local level. Though the grant only covers 40 percent of the facility's cost, NIAID retains 100 percent control. UW says "we'll be in charge" but supporting documents say exactly the opposite.

According to the NIH Request for Application, the section "Cooperative Agreement Terms and Conditions of Award," item 1. b. states:

b. Awardees agree to participate in projects identified by the NIAID Biodefense Network that include common research interests and address a specific biodefense problem or threat.

and item 3. a.

3. Collaborative responsibilities:

a. The NIAID Biodefense Network will provide overall scientific coordination of the RBL Program

So the Bush Administration will be calling the shots (and let's not forget the biological treaties they've opted out of in the last four years).

Worried yet? Read on.

The three pathogens that are currently listed for study at this RBL are: tularemia, plague, and anthrax. The friendliest of these bugs--tularemia--infected three scientists at Boston University last summer, an incident the University of Boston chose to keep from the public for months, until newspaper reporters discovered the accident. None of these three accounts for more than a couple hundred deaths individually worldwide per year (vs. challenges like HIV, cancer, and malaria that each kill millions per year). Why, when recent reports indicate that the UW is coming up short of funds to continue cancer research, would that institution instead choose to fund and house facilities for pathogens that pose no significant current threat? Could it be tied to a shift in national funding priorities that have increased for these three proposed pathogens by over 1500 percent in the last few years, while HIV funding has been cut by 20 percent and malaria by 40 percent? (It's interesting to note that the three pathogens they'd be working on happen to have been the same that were shipped over to Iraq in the late 80's by the US later to be used as part of the justification for the current U.S. war with that country.)

What about accidents? UW proponents like to say they know of only one accident at a UW facility and know of no accidents where the public was exposed at a BSL-3 lab located at a university (this statement keeps changing slightly at each public forum). Easy to say when there are no national standards for reporting of accidents, thefts, and other incidents. Each state has it's own standards and, although the CDC has a list of 49 notifiable diseases, when it comes to a comprehensive national policy to track incidents, one simply doesn't exist. What does exist, however, are laws stemming from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 which prohibit public disclosure of theft or loss of bioterrorism agents (also known as "select agents"). So if the UW does discover some of the three pathogens missing, you will never know about it. In addition, when there is an accident, the only people who have to be notified are the City, County, and/or State Secretary of Health, and it's their call what to do from there. Once the UW makes that call they can roll over and go back to sleep.

Safety in terms of an intentional release is also a major concern. As angry citizens have stated during two of the only public hearings so far, the UW recently had one of it's facilities attacked and burnt to the ground by "eco-terrorists". Not a shining example of protecting public property. During these same meetings and in UW documents, proponents have emphasized that the location of the proposed lab complex will be literally across the street from UW Police Headquarters (it's touted as a primary benefit of that location). UW reps state that, unlike Seattle police who have many things to deal with, UW police would give the labs top priority. This begs the question of if the labs are not considered a high profile target of "terrorists" or disgruntled workers (as UW proponents state publicly) then why do these labs require an exclusive police force located literally across the street to protect this facility? If the labs are considered a high profile target, then why locate them in a densely populated sector of the largest city in the state?

These are only a few of the problems with the proposed lab complex at the UW.

Though the grant application states that the UW is required to do extensive outreach, so far the University has been attempting to fly underneath the public radar. It was only due to a member of the UW Senate Faculty speaking out that the proposal became public knowledge at all in January. The University's two public forums received little or no attention. The forums were also heavily controlled by University representatives (people were not allowed to clap, and UW reps had unlimited time to talk, while audience members' time was limited). Luckily, due to mounting public awareness and pressure, the UW has scheduled another public forum on Monday, April 11 from 4 - 6 PM at the HUB (Student Union Building) on the UW campus. This will be an excellent opportunity to be heard both inside at the forum itself as well as outside the HUB on campus grounds. People are encouraged to get there well ahead of the start time to help hand out flyers and participate in the only safe, open air experiment we call "democracy".

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

More on Biolab Bloopers

Another excellent source with a listing of known lab accidents over the last decade comes from the Council for Responsible Genetics "Boston University Biodefense" website

Check out their page entitled "Mistakes Happen: Accidents and Security Breaches at Biocontainment Laboratories" and the nice pdf file (a great resource for those public forums).

Monday, March 21, 2005

Accidents, what accidents?

In light of the UW's constant repetition of the mantra "we know of no public exposures from this type of lab" (with numerous variations based on the given audience they are speaking to) you might find the following of interest. It should be noted that there is no national standard or structure in place for gathering data on lab "accidents". Each state has it's own rules. It certainly makes it easier to honestly say "I know of no accidents" when there nothing there to record them.

From the Feb/March Tri-Valley Cares Newsletter

Ongoing Saga of Bio-Lab Accidents "That Don't Exist"

by Inga Olson, from February/March 2005 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Here, in your Citizen's Watch newsletter, we have documented numerous accidents with dangerous biological agents in advanced biosafety labs over the last couple of years. Taken together, these cases show that it is indeed possible for live anthrax and other bioagents to infect workers and escape into the environment.

These incidents highlight problems with implementing biosafety standards, even in high-tech countries and at prestigious U.S. universities. Lab directors who say accidents in high-containment Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 and 4 facilities are virtually unknown, fail to list even publicly-known accidents. Further, they fail to mention that there are no comprehensive, mandatory reporting requirements for lab accidents in high containment facilities. Thus, it is likely that many accidents go unreported.

Here is some of what we do know. A researcher in 2003 at one of the three BSL-3 labs in Singapore contracted SARS while unknowingly working on a cross-contaminated sample. Then, there was another accident at the National Defense University in Taipei --Taiwan's only BSL-4 facility. A medical researcher there contracted SARS in the lab on Dec. 5, 2003, flew to a medical conference in Singapore, returned Dec. 10 and eventually entered a hospital on Dec. 16 where the SARS was diagnosed.

At UC Berkeley, the genetic-modification of tuberculosis accidentally created a novel, virulent form that appears to undermine the body's own immune response. Fortunately, there was no accidental release with this agent. In May 2004, a researcher died at Russia's top bio-lab after contracting the Ebola virus. Another Ebola researcher, this time at the U.S. bio-agent facility at Fort Detrick, MD, stuck herself while working with mice and Ebola. Fortunately, she did not die.

Then, we learned that anthrax leaked at the BSL-3 at Ft. Detrick, MD. Two scientists were placed on ciprofloxacinone for 30 days. Seven linen collectors and one additional worker were also treated with antibiotics. Anthrax was found outside of the containment lab in three different places: the "clean" change room, an office and on the passbox -- an ultraviolet lighted square-area used for "safely" passing potentially contaminated material into and out of the lab suite. More than 200 colonies of Ames strain were found on the passbox. The official report cited a cavalier attitude toward safety among some personnel and multiple, serious safety deficiencies that had been blatantly ignored.

In addition to Ames strain (the strain found in the anthrax-laced letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle in 2001), Vollum 1B anthrax was also leaked at the Ft. Detrick complex. The "B" in the name is from the late Ft. Detrick microbiologist William Boyle, whose blood was used to grow the strain after he died in a 1951 lab accident.

And, what about the supposedly dead anthrax sent via Fed-Ex to the Children's Hospital lab in Oakland in 2004? It turned out to be live Ames strain and seven employees were treated with antibiotics. There is virtually no regulation of inactivated or supposedly "dead" anthrax in this country.

Here's the latest news. In 2004, at the Boston University Medical Center, three BSL-2 lab workers contracted a rare disease called tularemia. Two of the workers were hospitalized. The lab infections were not made public until 2005, after the center won approval to build a new, maximum containment biodefense lab. Now, "New Scientist" is reporting that this is not the first time workers at the Boston lab were accidentally exposed to tularemia. In 2000, a dozen people were exposed to samples from a patient who caught the disease from a wild rabbit and died.

About $14.5 billion has been spent in the U.S. on biodefense since 2001. This rapid expansion in work with dangerous pathogens is neither adequately regulated nor scientifically justified. These advanced biowarfare agent labs are posing a definite risk to the public, and they are siphoning off funds from other, badly-needed medical and public health research and facilities.

We do not want the deaths of workers at Livermore Lab's proposed, new BSL-3, or deaths of their family members or community residents, to be the impetus that finally causes a prudent look at the rash biodefense building boom in America. For this reason, Tri-Valley CAREs, in collaboration with groups across the U.S., has called for a moratorium on building, upgrading and operating new biodefense facilities until a national assessment has been conducted to determine how many, if any, new facilities are actually needed.

We also continue our lawsuit to force Livermore Lab to conduct a thorough and complete Environmental Impact Statement before moving forward with an advanced bio-warfare research lab, which would be the first to be collocated in a Dept. of Energy nuclear weapons facility (see also article on p. 1).

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Where's the Outreach?

One of the things that's supposed to happen prior to federal funding of the UW's proposed "Biocontainment Laboratory" is outreach. So far the UW's outreach presence has been MIA.

It's actually part of the NIH's Request for Application (RFA). Item 8.f. states " Provide a detailed community relations plan outlining initial and ongoing community outreach and involvement related to the intended research activities to be conducted at the RBL. Documentation of community outreach must be provided to the NIAID before award/construction can begin."

To date there's only been a handful of meetings and only two of those were officially stated as "public" meetings. The two public forums were on 2/23 and 3/1. In addition the UW has had lab proponents at two CUCAC monthly meetings, a monthly meeting of the Northeast District Council and a meeting with members of the UW's Student Senate. That's five "public" meetings by my count with two of them including public participation in just over two months. Not exactly an aggressive outreach policy so far.