Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Labs in Seattle - Where's the Oversight?

One of the big reasons UW ran into trouble with it’s grant application for a large biodefense lab on campus was oversight. In this case citizen oversight. If not for the citizen representatives on CUCAC (City/University Community Advisory Committee) asking tough questions of the UW we’d be reading articles in this weeks papers about how grant monies had been approved for the 60,000 sq. ft. facility. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the UW and private companies are building labs off campus where there are no CUCAC’s to protect us. As UW Dean Paul Ramsey stated in this mornings PI "we are building across the city" and he’s right. The UW has at least one functional BSL-3 lab in South Lake Union (SLU) and has earmarked $170 million more for a major lab on Mercer St. (bringing a potentially whole new meaning to "the Mercer Mess"). This would be in addition to two other private BSL-3 facilities in the SLU neighborhood. With the recent reports of flooding/breaching of labs in the New Orleans area (BSL-3 & BSL-4) and now reports of missing plague mice in New Jersey it again begs the question of where is the oversight for labs in Seattle?

(Please note included articles below)

Mike McCormick

Lab loses track of three mice that had plague
As FBI probes Newark mystery, officials say risk to public safety is small
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Three lab mice carrying deadly strains of plague have turned up missing from separate cages at a bioterror research facility in Newark, sparking a hushed, intensive investigation by federal and state authorities.
Officials said the animals could have been stolen from the center or simply misplaced in a colossal accounting error at one of the top-level bio-containment labs in the state.

The incident occurred more than two weeks ago and was confirmed only yesterday after questions were raised by The Star-Ledger.

The research lab is located on the campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. It is run by the Public Health Research Institute, a leading center for research on infectious diseases, now participating in a six-year federal bio-defense project to find new vaccinations for the plague -- which federal officials fear could be used as a biological weapon.

UMDNJ has responsibility for the security of the building.

At least two dozen employees and researchers at the lab have been interrogated and, in some cases, subjected to lie detector tests. However, the disease-carrying lab mice may never be accounted for, federal officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also investigating.

"The FBI has expended substantial resources and put many agents into this investigation to satisfy -- among other things -- the most compelling question of whether public safety is at risk," said Special Agent Steve Siegel, a bureau spokesman.

He said the investigation was continuing. The agents on the case are members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and experts in biological agents that can be turned into weapons of mass destruction.

Although the FBI typically refuses to comment on open investigations, Siegel said the bureau took the unusual step of issuing a statement because of the "compelling public safety issue here" in the case.
"Right now, we are as satisfied as we can be that there is no public safety risk," Siegel stated.

State Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs said mice infected with plague die "very fast," so "the risk to the public ... is probably slim to none. We didn't think -- nor did the CDC think -- there was any public health threat."

Jacobs did acknowledge that the incident seemed to be the result of "internal sloppiness in the management of that lab."

Infectious-disease experts agreed that if the mice did escape the confines of the lab, the public health risk was likely minimal. However, they called the episode at UMDNJ's International Center for Public Health at University Heights Science Park very troubling -- raising serious issues of security and control at the lab.
The lab is a facility of the Public Health Research Institute, a separate entity that leases space from UMDNJ but is in discussions to become an operating division of the university.

In a statement released late yesterday, UMDNJ said: "The FBI has coordinated the investigation of the PHRI incident and UMDNJ has fully cooperated with their investigation."

While UMDNJ did not operate the lab, the investigation was more unwelcome news for a university that has had its reputation tattered in recent months by the disclosure of millions of dollars in financial abuses and no-bid contracts to politically connected firms.

Its administrative offices were also recently hit with a series of unsolved break-ins -- apparently tied to documents subpoenaed by federal investigators.

The lab where the mice disappeared is known as a Biosafety Level 3 containment lab, which works with diseases that are lethal or can cause serious health problems, including bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, West Nile virus and typhoid fever. The number of research labs has been expanding in response to the Bush administration's funding for bio-defense research.

Investigators said the lab mice were injected as part of an inoculation and vaccination experiment with the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The bacterium causes bubonic and other forms of plague -- an infectious disease which has claimed more than 30 million lives through history and even today sparks fear and panic around the world at the very mention of its name.

"It's a bad disease," noted John G. Bartlett, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

With modern antibiotics, plague can be treated if quickly diagnosed and is not the scourge that wiped out a third of Europe during the years of the Black Death in the 14th century, but it remains a deadly killer.

"Once it starts, it's awful," said Bartlett, recalling a case of bubonic plague three years ago in New York City involving a tourist from New Mexico. Thought to have been infected by fleas while hiking near Santa Fe, where plague is still not uncommon, the 53-year-old man began hemorrhaging and suffered an infection that shut down his kidneys and lungs. Doctors were forced to amputate his legs.

Bartlett said if the mice escaped, they probably were dead by now and should not be the cause of great concern. "What people should worry about is that plague is an agent of bio-terrorism," he suggested.
According to David Perlin, the scientific director of the Public Health Research Institute, the mice were part of a group of 24 animals injected with the plague bacterium Aug. 18. The brownish-gray mice, about the size of mice one might find in houses or buildings, were specially bred to be lab animals -- meaning they have almost identical genetic makeups so results can be compared from mouse to mouse.

The trials involved eight mice in each of three cages. One group was given a known and effective vaccine against the plague. A second was given a test vaccine. The third received no vaccine.

Three days later, the mice in two of the cages were all dead. The carcasses were bagged and frozen without being counted. Their cages were sterilized and the bedding and other materials inside were incinerated, according to Perlin.

In the third cage, the eight mice that had received the proven vaccine were still alive and accounted for on Aug. 25.

But four days later, on Aug. 29, just seven were found in the cage, and researchers went back to the frozen carcasses, only to find just seven in each set. They immediately called the CDC. Then the FBI was called.
Perlin placed the blame for the incident on an animal care handler.

'It was sort of basic animal care; Animal Care 101. The person didn't follow the basic standard protocol," Perlin remarked. "The individual is not working in the facility right now."

Perlin said investigators and scientists believe the missing mice had been eaten by the others in the cages, but that no one will ever know because the handler sterilized the cages and incinerated the contents before probing through all the bedding and waste in the cage to determine that there were no mouse remains.
Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and a critic of the government's rapid expansion of bio-terrorism labs, said whatever the ultimate disposition of the animals, the incident raises red flags.
"There is a modest public health risk if they escaped, but the more important issue is that of control and security of the facility," he said.

He noted there has been a series of serious incidents across the country involving accidental human infections at several of the labs working with agents like anthrax and plague. At the same time, he said, federal guidelines call for only minimal security -- a lock on the lab door and a lock on the sample container and cage.
"You have more security at a McDonald's than at some of these facilities," Ebright said.

Josh Margolin may be reached at or (609) 989-0267. Ted Sherman may be reached at or (973) 392-4278

Years of research swept away by Katrina's rising waters
By PAUL ELIAS and ALICIA CHANG, Associated Press Writers
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

As rising floodwaters swamped New Orleans, Louisiana's chief epidemiologist enlisted state police on a mission to break into a high-security government lab and destroy any dangerous germs before they could escape or fall into the wrong hands.

Armed with bolt cutters and bleach, Dr. Raoult Ratard's team entered the state's so-called "hot lab," and killed all the living samples.

"This is what had to be done," said Ratard, who matter-of-factly put a sudden end to his lab's work on dangerous germs, which he wouldn't name. At least Ratard's team was able to retrieve laptop computers containing vital scientific data. Many other scientists in the region weren't so fortunate, losing years of research, either through storm damage or voluntary destruction.

Not since the torrential floods from Tropical Storm Allison, which badly damaged the Texas Medical Center in 2001, has scientific research been disrupted on such a large scale. Doctors and researchers in the Crescent City became exiles overnight, indefinitely locked out of their labs and unable to see patients.

Thousands of laboratory animals - many genetically engineered with human diseases like cancer and painstakingly bred and cared for - perished along with vital tissue samples thawed in abandoned labs.
Important work on heart disease, cancer, AIDS and a host of other ailments may be lost forever to scientists at Tulane and Louisiana State universities' medical schools in New Orleans.

LSU lost all of its 8,000 lab animals, including mice, rats, dogs and monkeys. Many drowned. Others died without food and water and the rest were euthanized, said Dr. Larry Hollier, dean of the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.

About 300 federally funded projects at New Orleans colleges and universities worth more than $150 million - including 153 projects at Tulane - were affected in some way, according to an initial survey by the National Institutes of Health.

One of the biggest blows is the likely destruction of frozen urine and blood samples from thousands of patients enrolled in the Bogalusa Heart Study, the world's longest-running racial study of risk factors for heart disease.
Samples collected and frozen since 1973 thawed out when the hurricane knocked out electricity and backup generators failed at a Tulane lab in New Orleans.

"It's irreplaceable. That's decades of research," aid Dr. Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane. "It makes you want to cry."

If the blood and urine samples are damaged or contaminated, future tests can't be done using them. However, Bogalusa's chief researcher, Tulane cardiologist Dr. Gerald Berenson said he had analyzed much of the data already collected and saved it on his computer, which was not damaged.

"The Bogalusa Heart Study will go on," said Berenson who visited New Orleans, but not his lab, on Tuesday. "We'll just have to pick up the pieces from what we have."

Tulane cancer specialist Dr. Tyler Curiel was one of the few researchers who decided to ride out the hurricane in New Orleans in an effort to salvage decades worth of research.

After the storm passed, Curiel spent the first few days transferring vials from broken freezers to liquid nitrogen tanks with the help of a flashlight.

He later fled to his in-laws' house in Denver and then returned to his lab for a day, grabbing whatever he could in an effort to save blood and tissue samples from an ongoing ovarian cancer project.

But he had to leave most of his experiments behind.

"This is a dramatic blow to our research," said Curiel, who plans to temporarily relocate his lab to the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "My researchers are scattered across the country and our facilities are still contaminated."

One thin silver lining to all the lab damage: It appears that no deadly diseases were released from the area's "hot labs," where researchers routinely handle and store some of the world's most dangerous germs.
In Covington, just north of New Orleans, Tulane's high-security National Primate Research Center reported only minor damage and said none of its 5,000 research animals escaped.

Ratard, the state epidemiologist, said the lab he returned to appeared undamaged and untouched by looters. He wouldn't disclose what germs the laboratory was working on when Katrina struck.

All the labs in Katrina's path that handle bioweapons defense research involving pathogens such as anthrax reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that their security wasn't compromised, according to CDC spokesman Von Roebuck. "A few reported minor damage, but there was no issue of escape."