Biosafety lab may not be as open as promised

UTMB still lacks policy on reporting infectious-disease accidents to public

May 8, 2005
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Galveston academics faced a formidable task in the late 1990s when they first sought to build an ultrasecure lab to study the world's most infectious diseases.

How best, they wondered, to convince residents of a narrow island, already vulnerable to hurricanes, that they should willingly open themselves up to another - no matter how unlikely an outbreak might be - potential disaster?

The scientists decided that frankness about the risks and rewards as well as transparency about their plans were the best weapons to combat fear and opposition.

It worked. Partly because of near universal local support, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston landed a whopping $110 million federal grant last year to construct the Galveston National Laboratory on its campus. Construction likely will begin this month, well ahead of schedule.

Yet an accident at a similar biosafety lab in Boston last year has raised questions about whether Galveston's scientists will be as open about their infectious disease work as they have promised.

Documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle show that UTMB does not have a policy to handle the public reporting of accidents such as the recent infection of three Boston researchers with a virus. At least one senior investigator believes UTMB should have done what Boston University did - stay mum.

Critics of UTMB's openness say there's a simple reason why an institution might opt for silence.

"Biodefense institutions do not report their accidents because it makes them look bad," said Edward Hammond, director of the Austin-based Sunshine Project, a nonprofit that studies biological weapons issues.

Both universities, in Boston and Galveston, have specially designed laboratories to handle infectious diseases. Galveston opened a small biosafety-level 4 lab last year, the designation for handling the most virulent and infectious agents.

Two workers hospitalized

The Boston incident happened in a BSL-2 lab last year when three scientists working with a vaccine for a rare disease called tularemia were exposed to bacteria that causes it. Two infected workers were hospitalized, but all recovered.

Like UTMB, Boston University won a federal contract to construct a large BSL-4 biocontainment lab in 2003. But officials there face far greater public opposition, and the accident came at a critical time when they were trying to shore up support.

So officials decided, after informing the city government and determining there was no public health threat, to keep the matter quiet. Months later, after media inquiries, Boston University finally acknowledged the accident.

Activists pilloried the university for what they called a "cover-up." And the delayed release has further impaired the institution's credibility as the federal approval process continues.

"They didn't think we would want to know?" Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey wrote after the incident, saying the university flunked the trust test. "Of course they knew better, and that is exactly why Boston University and the city, state, and federal officials ... kept their mouths shut."

Would UTMB have done the same thing?

The school's administrators now say no, but an e-mail discussion of the Boston incident shortly after it became public in January suggests the decision may not be clear cut.

How would UTMB react?

UTMB's public relations department was trying to get a handle on how the university would act in a similar situation. They asked Scott Weaver, a member of the UTMB biodefense center's leadership team. He replied that for most of the infectious agents studied in Galveston, referral to the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee would be sufficient.

"There is a fine balance between unnecessarily alarming the community when it is at no risk, and being transparent to maintain trust," Weaver wrote.

Hammond said this response to a lab accident, even one posing no immediate public threat, is utterly unacceptable.

"He basically says, 'In my judgment we'd do the same thing and perhaps worse,' " Hammond said. "He doesn't understand - or too well understands - the issues. The public has a right to know about laboratory accidents not only because of any immediate health threat that they pose, but also because there is a profound public interest in the safe operation of facilities such as UTMB's."

Hammond's organization, which does not oppose biosafety research labs, has pressed UTMB for better public disclosure of its activities.

Public notification policy

Dr. Stanley Lemon, director of UTMB's Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and final arbiter of lab decisions, said Weaver's comments were not reflective of university policy.

"I think our first concern, were something like that to happen here, is how could we best maintain the trust with the people," Lemon said. "We would not have sat on that information."

Yet Lemon said UTMB is still formulating a final policy on public notification of events at the lab. For example, he asked, should the public know if a toilet on the fifth floor doesn't work? He said he and other lab officials are working with a group of citizens to determine what people want to know, and what they don't need to know.

One clear distinction, however, is the difference between exposure to biological agents and actual infection. More than a year ago a senior UTMB investigator working with West Nile virus was accidentally exposed to the virus but never showed signs of infection, and the incident has not been publicly reported.

Had the infection presented itself, Lemon said, the public would have been notified.

Fear of 'mass hysteria'

UTMB's 23-member Institutional Biosafety Committee reviews research done by the lab. The committee, which has a say on whether to notify the community of accidents, is made largely of university employees but has three public representatives.

When asked about the tularemia leak in Boston, one of them, Jim Ditty, an ecologist with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Galveston, said he "probably would vote not to immediately release the information for fear of unfounded (fear) creating mass hysteria, aka War of the World's sort of thing."

However, releasing the information at a later date would be best for all involved, he said. Another public member of the panel, oceanographer Robin Brinkmeyer of Texas A&M University at Galveston, said she was confident UTMB would immediately inform the public of any potential danger.

Full disclosure

Some critics say anything short of full disclosure immediately after an accident will harm a lab's relationship with the surrounding community.

"Having the news leak out, instead of being up front, it's extremely corrosive of public trust," said Richard Ebright, a professor of molecular biology at Rutgers University.

Federal regulations require reporting accidents to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local authorities, Ebright said. But barring an immediate and significant threat, no public disclosure is required.

"Institutions will be careful to comply with federal law, but will be reluctant to disclose beyond that," Ebright said. "Accidents at these kinds of facilities are embarrassing."

Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States had two large biosafety laboratories that handled the most infectious viruses and bacteria, at the CDC in Atlanta and the U.S. Army's facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

In addition to funding large labs at Boston University and UTMB to handle the biological agents, the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are both planning to build labs, and the CDC is planning a major expansion.

Ebright said the amount of lab space could increase tenfold within a few years. The number of National Institutes of Health grants for researching infectious diseases, which could become potential biological weapons, also has skyrocketed, from 33 in the five years prior to 2001, to 497 since then.

Yet only about 3 percent of the investigators who received grants have received prior NIH support for these biological agents, such as anthrax, indicating a lack of experience working with them, Ebright said.

Couple that inexperience with multiple new facilities around the country, and you have a recipe for disaster - either through accidental infections that leak into a community or by theft of agents by those who would do evil, Ebright said.

Accidents happen

Other accidents have already happened at the securest of labs. In 2002, three different strains of the anthrax bacteria were found outside sealed-off areas of the Army's lab.

Dr. C.J. Peters, director of biodefense for UTMB, has worked at the CDC and Fort Detrick labs.

He says lab safety procedures are the best they can be, and more lab space is urgently needed, especially at universities, because academic researchers have more time to focus on developing vaccines and working with manufacturers to ensure a supply.

He noted emerging infections such as Rift Valley Fever, Nipah virus and Marburg hemorrhagic fever, which has killed 250 people in Angola.

"The research that's been done on these viruses so far has almost been hobby research, and we need better fundamental understandings of them to fight them," he said.

"It's a dangerous world, and we can't control this problem just by locking everything up. If we try to do that we're not going anywhere."

eric.berger at chron dot com