OJ Simpson is back in the news, following hard on the heels of other celebrities in legal entanglements: Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Martha Stewart, etc., etc. Yawn. Were they treated more harshly beacuse they were celebrities? Yawn. The other side of the coin, of course, is the privilege of the famous and powerful. We know they often get off when lesser mortals wouldn’t. So what does that have to do with what we usually talk about here, public health, infectious disease, bird flu, research? This.
Yesterday we brought you the latest in an ongoing series of posts about accidents in biodefense laboratories (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here). A major issue is the cavalier and often arrogant attitudes of researchers for safety regulations. We also talk a lot about research on avian influenza here. Sometimes the two subjects come together in odd ways. Yoshiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin is a major figure in influenza research, an academic star. But his laboratory is involved in researching other dangerous agents as well. The availability of research dollars for bioddefense makes this area an attractive subject for high powered and ambitious investigators whose large laboratories, staffed with junior faculty, post doctoral fellows, graduate students and technicians, are hungry mouths that require constant feeding. Now we learn, from the indomitable folks at The Sunshine Project, that Kawaoka’s lab at UW was playing it a mite too casually with Ebola virus:
In 2005 and into the summer of 2006, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW) made and manipulated copies of the entire Ebola virus genome without proper safety precautions. Although federal safety rules required a maximum protection Biosafety Level Four (BSL-4) lab for the research, UW allowed it to proceed at the much less safe and secure BSL-3 level.
The rules that UW broke are intended to ensure that extremely dangerous agents that are easily transmissible and usually incurable don’t escape maximum containment. They prohibit working at BSL-3 with Ebola (and similarly dangerous) virus material that has not been rendered irreversibly incapable of reproducing. UW does not have a BSL-4 lab suitable for handling Ebola virus, which is one of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.
Despite the contrary provisions of the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules, permission for UW scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka to perform the Ebola genome work at BSL-3 was granted by the University of Wisconsin Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC). This significant violation of NIH Guidelines was not detected in a timely manner by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or, apparently, by the CDC Select Agent Program staff that inspect the Kawaoka lab. (Press Release, The Sunshine Project)
The Sunshine Project’s Director, Ed Hammond, asks exactly the right questions about this. In particular Hammond raises the question whether Kawaoka’s celebrity status led UW to give him a pass:
The Kawaoka Lab is known for work on the bleeding edge of virology. It is a world of dangerous experiments with dangerous diseases, such as infecting monkeys with deadly agents. Daring lab workers frequently deal with diseases like 1918 influenza and – by protocol – preemptively pop Tamiflu like it was breath mint. Engineering controls clearly don’t seem to themselves inspire complete confidence. It is doubtful that many other virologists would gain institutional approval for some of the lab’s practices or, for that matter, would be willing to routinely subject themselves to some of the lab’s risks.
The lab is well funded with biodefense grants and is at once admired and controversial. In late 2004, UW and the University of Pittsburgh got into an unseemly bidding war over the scientist, offering up tens of millions of dollars in salaries, labs, people, and other public resources in packages more reminiscent of a MTV pop music star’s concert rider than a college professor’s salary contract.
“Pecking order means a lot in biology, in Madison and elsewhere, and Kawaoka is a big bird,” says Hammond. The Sunshine Project would like to know if celebrity status caused UW to disregard the NIH Guidelines and lower safety and security standards: “If it had wanted to, was the IBC even realistically able to veto Kawaoka’s research plans after the University had spent millions to keep him, blowing cash and political capital all the way to the governor’s office? That these imbalanced situations exist at all is one good reason to make IBC compliance a matter of law instead of guideline.”
The Sunshine Project is now reporting other examples. There is an indication that Tulane University (New Orleans) has also handled the complete geneomes of BSL4-level agents, not only Ebola but Lassa Fever. The cases so far, therefore, may be only the tip of the ugly biodefense laboratory iceberg.
Which of these icebergs is in the direct path of some unsuspecting community, sailing along like the Titanic, believing itself unsinkable at the hands of its own government and its policies?