Saturday, August 22, 2009

UW-Madison: Bumbling Oafs or Big Fat Liars?

I'm sure that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has some fine teachers and bright researchers; the odds of having some outstanding minds are in the institution's favor given the large number of people who work there. But smart and ethical aren't the same thing. I'll talk more about that distinction a little later.

Maybe the animal-using component of the university attracts the oafs and the liars; maybe it's unfair to judge the overall quality of the institution and its staff by looking only at the animal users. Maybe, but that's the only part of the university with which I am familiar, and from that perspective, the university does indeed appear to be filled with oafs and liars.

At times it's hard to tell the difference between an oaf and a liar. For instance, when the university offered up property in the Town of Dunn as a construction site for the Department of Homeland Security's National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), did they simply not know that the Town of Dunn is nationally known as a leader in land use and open space preservation? Were they genuinely this uniformed, or did they think they could hornswaggle the townsfolk into dumping their three-decades-old land ethic for the possibility of new jobs? See what I mean? It's hard to tell whether the university "experts" were just dull or just liars.

I think they might be both, and that's a very dangerous mix when you stop to realize that they experiment with some of the most deadly and dangerous diseases known. NBAF is a case in point.

On March 8, 2007, three representatives from UW-Madison made a presentation to the Dane County Board of Supervisors. UW-Madison was one of 14 semifinalists bidding to host the planned NBAF, intended to replace the aging and contaminated Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. NBAF will feature BSL-4 laboratories intended to study the most dangerous diseases known and yet to be discovered or designed.

Irwin Goldman, associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences was the primary university spokesperson at the March 8, presentation. Goldman told the Dane County Supervisors that he was knowledgeable of the risk associated with biological research because he was familiar with the use of pesticides and herbicides. In his opinion, based on his own expertise in horticulture, he found nothing to be concerned with in having a BSL-4 lab in town. But on July 27, 2009, The Washington Post reported that:
The Department of Homeland Security relied on a rushed, flawed study to justify its decision to locate a $700 million research facility for highly infectious pathogens in a tornado-prone section of Kansas, according to a government report.

The department's analysis was not "scientifically defensible" in concluding that it could safely handle dangerous animal diseases in Kansas -- or any other location on the U.S. mainland, according to a Government Accountability Office draft report obtained by The Washington Post. The GAO said DHS greatly underestimated the chance of accidental release and major contamination from such research, which has been conducted only on a remote island off the United States.
Presumably, Ira Goldman and the rest of the university "experts'" claims that such a lab would be completely safe were based on the risk analysis conducted by DHS that the GAO now says was a "questionable methodology [that] could result in regrettable consequences." GAO says: "Given the significant limitations in DHS’s analyses that we found, the conclusion that FMD work can be done as safely on the mainland as on Plum Island is not supported." [My emphasis.]

This isn't reassuring. Either the university "experts" weren't expert enough to recognize that the risk assessments were based on out-dated incomplete scientific analyses or else didn't care enough about the public's safety to bother considering the DHS claims. This is particulary alarming given the fact that the university has been working to keep secret its plans for a new infectious disease lab right off Regent Street. Here's a letter published in the Aug. 22, 2009 Wisconsin State Journal regarding this stonewalling:
UW unresponsive on records request

Three years ago UW-Madison drew opposition from town of Dunn residents when it announced it was competing to build a lab for the study of diseases like anthrax and SARS. When the UW failed in its bid for the National Bio- and Agro Defense Facility, it admitted that community opposition was the biggest factor that sank the application.

UW-Madison recently announced it was in nationwide competition for federal stimulus funds to expand its infectious disease research facilities at its Charter Street lab, located just a block from the Vilas and Greenbush neighborhoods.

On June 3 I filed an open records request with UW to obtain information regarding the infectious disease research UW plans to conduct. I have yet to receive a response.

The Capital Times recently filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jim Doyle because he took more than 30 days to respond to their request for documents related to judicial appointments. The governor allegedly delayed his response to announce the appointments before he released the documents.

Following their failure three years ago, UW representatives said the process taught the university much about applying for federal projects. Was keeping the public in the dark one of the lessons?

The open records law requires a response "as soon as practical," and "harming the UW's chances for federal funds" is not listed among its exceptions.

-- Leslie Hamilton, Madison

If it weren't for a leak, we wouldn't know that the university has applied for a grant from the NIH to establish an BSL-3 infectious disease lab inside the primate center and that they propose to infect monkeys with SARS, avian flu, and tuberculosis. Given that the university's biosafety "experts" couldn't adequately evaluate the NBAF, or wouldn't, it makes sense to be worried about our health and safety now, to say nothing of the monkeys they will be watching die.
If their colossal circle-jerk regarding NBAF was their only screw up regarding possibly infecting everyone in Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin, or the world, maybe we could believe them when they (are sure to) say that we should trust their ability to keep us safe from their experiments. But it's not, not even close.

Right now, the university is under investigation by the NIH for a Major Action violation. Neither the university nor NIH will release details because the investigation is on-going. What we do know is that a researcher gentically modified disease-causing organisms to be resistant to the antibiotics used to control them (that's the definition of an NIH Major Action) and that s/he did this either without approval or without appropriate safeguards or both. We know this because Chancellor Martin announced it in the local paper. Apparently, the NIH began its investigation about two years ago and said that the entire biosafety program at the univerity was woefully lax. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that: "UW-Madison is not in compliance with National Institutes of Health [biosafety] guidelines because of 'gross and chronic' understaffing."

The university has a history of putting the public at grave risk and of not following basic federal regulations for working with deadly diseases. In 2007, MSNBC reported that:
University of Wisconsin-Madison research on the deadly Ebola virus was conducted for a year in a less-secure laboratory than required, until the National Institutes of Health alerted the school to the problem....

The university approved [Yoshihiro] Kawaoka's study initially for a Biosafety Level 3.... Several of UW-Madison's laboratories are Level 3 labs, but none are Level 4, where the most stringent guidelines to contain the most dangerous pathogens are applied.

Klein said Kawaoka was pressing to conduct the research in a less restrictive Level 2 lab. When the university asked the NIH for guidance, it learned the material was restricted to a Level 4 lab.
So, didn't the university know that federal regulations require Ebola research to be conducted in a BSL-4 lab or didn't they care, in essence lying to NIH and CDC? Were they oafs or liars?

Kawaoka has a history of putting the public's health at risk, and all of his experiments have been approved by the same "experts" who said NBAF was safe and that Ebola could be studied in a BSL-2 lab. Consider this:
Experts fear escape of 1918 flu from lab
October 2004
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition.
Debora MacKenzie

The 1918 flu virus spread across the world in three months and killed at least 40 million people. If it escaped from a lab today, the death toll could be far higher. “The potential implications of an infected lab worker – and spread beyond the lab – are terrifying,” says D. A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading biosecurity expert.

Yet despite the danger, researchers in the US are working with reconstructed versions of the virus at less than the maximum level of containment. ....

The latest work was done by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His team showed that adding the 1918 gene for the surface protein haemagglutinin to modern viruses made them far deadlier to mice. The researchers also found that people born after 1918 have little or no immunity.

The team started the work at the highest level of containment, BSL-4, at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Then they decided the viruses were safe enough to handle at the next level down, and did the rest of the work across the border in a BSL-3Ag lab in Madison. The main difference between BSL-4 and BSL-3Ag is that precautions to ensure staff do not get infected are less stringent: while BSL-4 involves wearing fully enclosed body suits, those working at BSL-3Ag labs typically have half-suits.

Kawaoka told New Scientist that the decision to move down to BSL-3Ag was taken only after experiments at BSL-4 showed that giving mice the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) in advance prevented them getting sick. This means, he says, that if all lab workers take oseltamivir “they cannot become infected”. ...

Yet this assumes that the mouse results apply to humans. And the findings have not been published. In similar experiments, Terrence Tumpey’s team at the US Department of Agriculture’s poultry research lab in Athens, Georgia, got quite different results: they found that mice given oseltamivir still got sick and 1 in 10 died. It is not clear why Kawaoka’s mice fared better.

What is more, all the safety precautions are aimed at preventing escape, not dealing with it should it occur. If any of Kawaoka’s lab workers are exposed to the virus despite all the precautions, and become infected despite taking oseltamivir, the consequences could be disastrous.

“I experienced disbelief ... regarding the decision to relocate the reconstructed 1918 influenza strain from a BSL-4 facility to a BSL-3 facility, based on its susceptibility to antiviral medication,” Ronald Voorhees, chief medical officer at the New Mexico Department of Health, wrote on ProMED-mail, an infectious diseases mailing list....
Still not worried?
January 9, 2009 U. of Wis. quietly scraps risky lab equipment


MADISON, Wis. -- The University of Wisconsin-Madison has quietly decided to stop manufacturing its signature aerosol chambers used for researching infectious disease, which were involved in a few dangerous lab accidents nationwide, including one in Seattle in 2004.

The College of Engineering is shutting down the business after an internal audit found it was poorly managed and carried the potential for huge liability costs in the event the chambers failed, exposing researchers to toxic agents.
And this:
12 April 2007 - A [Madison] aerosol chamber mishap at Texas A&M University in February 2006 caused a researcher to be infected with the bioweapons agent brucella. Texas A&M University then violated federal law by not reporting the brucellosis case to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and now faces severe penalties. This information has only come to light as a result of persistent Texas Public Information Act requests by the Sunshine Project.
And this:
The Sunshine Project News Release 18 April 2005:

The Chamber: The Madison aerosol chamber is a specialized type of lab equipment. The chamber is used to infect animals with disease through their lungs. Cultures of organisms causing tuberculosis or the bioweapons agents anthrax, Q fever, or brucella and others are placed in a part of the device called a nebulizer, which mixes the agents with air. The resulting aerosol is directed into a metal chamber in which animals have been placed on racks. The animals then breathe in the agent. The integrity of the complicated device's "O rings", seals, and other fittings is critical to preventing the aerosols from escaping the chamber and causing accidental infections. But the Madison chamber in Seattle, Washington leaks badly, and in 2004 it caused three laboratory-acquired tuberculosis infections at a BSL-3 lab shared by Corixa Corporation and the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IRDI).

“Foolproof”: In late 2003, the Seattle lab began using a Madison aerosol chamber to infect guinea pigs with tuberculosis. Several batches were exposed over a period of months. By March 2004, a serious problem was detected when three employees, who previously tested negative for tuberculosis, came back with positive tests, or "conversions", indicating that they had been exposed to the agent.
The Madison aerosol chamber was designed by biosafety "experts" at UW-Madison, the same peole who are going to tell us that the public's safety will not be at risk from the lab they want to establish just a block off Regent Street. But listen to this.

In the leaked documents we received, university officials have claimed that they will secure their SARS, avian influenza and tuberculosis-infected monkeys in BioBubbles. BioBubbles are claimed by the manufacturer to be the "most cost effective" way to establish BSL-3 and BSF-4 environments, and they may be, but that doesn't make me feel very safe. Looking that the patent for BioBubbles [US Patent 7335243 - Modular biosafety containment apparatus and system], it seems to be a system designed primarily for emergency use:
[C]urrently available biological containment chambers are often expensive and difficult to retro fit into existing structures especially when one considers the short time periods available for attempting to control potential outbreaks of infectious agents. What are needed are more cost effective and readily adaptable biological containment chambers.... It is contemplated that modular construction provided in some embodiments, allows the user to more rapidly deploy the invention in preexisting spaces.
Keep in mind that Plum Island, the lab in New York that NBAF is intended to replace, essentially fell apart due to lack of adequate maintenance. Madison aerosol cabinets, the foolproof safety system designed by the university were taken off the market because they fall apart. The university has failed to follow federal rules and quidelines regarding Ebola research, genetic engineering of antibiotic resistance, biosafety oversight, and has allowed researchers to experiment with the most deadly diseases ever encountered. And, they have been confused about federal safety rules and the science behind safety analyses. And now they want to import SARS, avian influenza, and tuberculosis into downtown Madison.

Oafs or big fat liars, it's impossible to tell with certainty; what is much easier to say though is that we shouldn't trust either one.

Smart doesn't mean ethical

A fellow here in town named Rick Marolt teaches business at the university. He had the reasonable idea to ask who at the university is responsible for ethical decision-making. Who is it that looks at the influx of data on the mentality of monkeys and determines whether infecting them with terminal diseases, or experimenting on their brains, or what have you, is ethical. He asked the faculty senate, but they said it wasn't their job. He asked Chancellor Martin, and she said it was the animal care and use committee's job, but the animal care and use committee said that their job was to make sure that the experiments comply with the law (which in the case of the sheep decompression and past piglet starvation experiments, they failed to do). Apparently no one at the university wants the responsibility or will accept the responsibility of looking at the issue from a moral or ethical perspective.

The fact that not even the English, history, or math professors can muster the gumption to look critically at their colleagues' work doesn't speak highly of the principles guiding the institution; the culture there is an apparent studied overlooking of other's unethical behavior -- they probably call this academic freedom, but that's the same mindset that allowed Nazi scientists to experiment on Jews. Academia seems to be filled with people whose spines are missing.

I wonder if there are even five people at the university with a spine?


Anonymous said...


What are the open records laws for Wisconsin? Does one have to be a state citizen to request documents?

Rick said...


PeTA recently received approx 700 pgs from UW.